The Piketty divide: Part 2

The Right (and I include big business in that) is scathing of Piketty’s conclusions, and of his re-introduction of the role of government into economics. Please forgive a few longer quotes to illustrate the venom of the Right:

Louis Woodhill, a software entrepreneur, claims Piketty has his numbers wrong:

… Piketty’s painstakingly researched numbers are worthless because they ignore the existence of the modern welfare state. Our various welfare programs redistribute a huge percentage of national income and, therefore, for the purposes of Piketty’s comparisons across time, they redistribute the beneficial ownership of capital. … Labor has little to do with economic growth. Capitalism is about capital and knowledge. … Anything you tax you get less of and Piketty’s system would impose huge taxes on accumulating and maintaining assets, which are what drive GDP. Under American capitalism, the ultimate arbiter of ‘common utility’ is the market. … expressed in the form of voluntary offers to buy and sell, into an optimum allocation of resources and an efficient coordination of efforts. When Piketty talks about ‘common utility’, what he means is, ‘common utility as judged by progressive French intellectuals like me.’

In The Wall Street Journal:

Not that enhancing growth is much on Mr Piketty’s mind, either as an economic matter or as a means to greater distributive justice. He assumes that the economy is static and zero-sum; if the income of one population group increases, another one must necessarily have been impoverished. He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake. Alternative objectives — such as maximising the overall wealth of society or increasing economic liberty or seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity, or even … ensuring that the welfare of the least well-off is maximised — are scarcely mentioned.

This last quote on the reaction of the Right, from an opinion piece in Forbes magazine, is quite frightening for what it reveals about the thinking of the extreme Right in America. (I originally thought it was satirical and it took me a few reads to take it seriously. If anyone can show me this really is satirical, I will be much relieved!)

Piketty drops Karl Marx’s name over and over again in this book. Enough to make you think that he’s hiding something. Such as the possibility that he is shilling for Charles Darwin. [that is, for social Darwinism in relation to the role of government]

One of the deadliest threats with which government has ever had to contend, over the entire pageant of human history, was the immense wealth and mass affluence generated by the industrial revolution. The usual metrics point to the exponential growth of goods and services from 1750 until 1914 if not 1929. Exponential growth of what we call the private or ‘real’ sector of the economy — everything that is not government — means that government also has to grow exponentially in order even to be detectable. Moreover, one can ask: if exponential real sector growth occurs over the long run, what possible need could civilization have for government. … World War I was a keen effort to lure the masses away from their pursuits in the real sector to pursuits in the government sector, which is to say trench warfare. In the offing, the real sector took a big hit … But it remains the Great Depression that has proven the best thing that has ever happened to government in modern times. To this day, memory of the 1930s is still there in the global psyche, convincing people that the market cannot go unchecked, that government has to be nice and big in order for there to be prosperity and economic justice. Cui bono — who benefited — from the Great Depression? Government did. … Signals got mixed, capitalism got the blame, and we haven’t been able to imagine life without government since. The challenge of the 21st century will be to see if we have the courage and the foresight — for we certainly have the means — to permit government to expire.

I won’t critique those comments from the Right but leave them to stand alone and you can judge for yourselves. But you can see what progressives are up against: ‘greed is good’ and ‘no role for government’, even ‘no need for government’.

The Right also like to point out that Piketty himself may become rich from the success of his book.

Here in Australia, Piketty does not seem to have hit the headlines. He is being discussed by local economists. John Quiggin, for example, has suggested that Piketty may be a little pessimistic about the possibility of success in introducing taxes on wealth because measures are slowly developing internationally to eliminate offshore tax havens.

But Piketty has not been a major topic in popular media or among politicians — a few articles over a few days and then, like old news, apparently forgotten.*

Why? Perhaps one reason is that inequality has not been seen as a major issue in Australia, as it has in France, the UK and the US, and has not reached the level it has in those countries, although it is increasing. Our politicians like to talk about equality in terms of fairness and to give Piketty any relevance in Australia would be to turn our political language on its head. Abbott and Hockey’s 2014 budget may do more than Piketty to emphasise inequality in Australia but, taking Bill Shorten’s budget reply as an indicator, we are more likely to continue to focus on ‘fairness’. (The unanswered question being whether ‘inequality’ and ‘fairness’ are addressing the same thing.)

In a speech to the Fabian Society on 18 May, Senator Penny Wong said that the debate on inequality ‘needs to become more prominent in Australia’ but she comes to what, in my opinion, are some strange conclusions. She refers to Piketty’s equation (r > g) but says that Labor, rather than reducing ‘r’, as Piketty proposes with his taxes, should focus on increasing ‘g’.

Labor should not only increase growth, we should also increase people’s opportunities to gain the benefits of growth. The traditional social democratic approach to fairness has focussed on redistribution through the tax and benefits system. But social democratic parties also need to focus on what has been called ‘predistribution’ — helping people to earn better incomes from the market economy in the first place, before the tax and benefits system kicks in.

The emphasis is on education, training and re-training, for what was earlier called ‘lifelong learning’, as an economy changes over time. Senator Wong refers to this as redistributing opportunity.

It is important for the reasons stated by Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, as quoted by Senator Wong:

Let me be frank: in the past, economists have underestimated the importance of inequality. They have focused on the size of the pie rather than its distribution. Today we are more keenly aware of the damage done by inequality. Put simply, a severely skewed income distribution harms the pace and sustainability of growth over the longer term. It leads to an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential.

Senator Wong’s declared approach addresses Largarde’s ‘wasteland of discarded potential’ but I don’t think it fully addresses Piketty’s basic premise. To achieve greater equality following her approach Piketty’s equation needs to be reversed: that is become, g > r. As suggested in Part 1, that did occur around the time of the World Wars and the Great Depression, and up to about 1970, but it was assisted by much higher taxes and other government interventions. Unless Labor is prepared to tackle the issue in that way, through taxing the rich and thereby reducing the rate of return on capital, the path proposed by Senator Wong may only be addressing half the problem. Without a reduction in the rate of return, a small increase in the rate of growth may not fully reverse the equation and only lead to continuing accumulation of wealth in the hands of the elite, who then have the capacity to pass that to their children, creating dynastic wealth and power (could I possibly mention Gina Rinehart or the Murdoch and Packer families in this context?).

Part of the problem is that progressive parties around the world have bought into the free market philosophy because, in a globalised economy, they now face a dilemma. Continuing to support redistributive policies can lead to investors threatening to move capital and investments abroad and ‘that, in turn, would cost jobs in the national market and result in less economic growth, less public revenue, less social investment …’ The rise of the New Left in the 1970s also shifted progressive thinking from labour rights to human rights. As Christos Tsiolkas has pointed out in his personal account, Whatever happened to the working class? — The left has forgotten where it came from, the progressives often fail to address the real concerns of the workers, and this is not just the old working class but parts of the middle class — the more highly paid skilled workers and ‘cashed-up bogans’ as Tsiolkas calls them.

If many of them were now “cashed-up bogans”, just as many were unemployed. Many were on welfare, many on drugs both illegal and prescribed. Even among the “cashed-up bogans”, there was a real fear about how long this period of extended prosperity was going to last. … They were fearful of a rise in interest rates and in rents and of the loss of permanent jobs to casualisation.

The cost of living, the uncertainty of employment, the erosion of public health and public education — that’s what mattered.

With progressive parties worldwide not apparently listening to those concerns, the underlying conservatism of the working class has tended to move it to the right, and to the extreme right as evidenced by results in the recent European Parliament election. Returning to such basic issues will also have an influence on how inequality is approached by progressive parties.

Although progressive parties face their own problems in considering inequality, we will certainly not hear Abbott and Hockey talking about Piketty or inequality. While Piketty accepts some level of inequality, he considers that when it becomes extreme it is useless as an incentive and also becomes a threat to democracy. Abbott and Hockey do not see that. As Victoria Rollison described their view recently (and it is worth repeating):

You only have to know their two favourite words to understand Abbott and his government’s entire ideology, which drives their entire raison d’être. User pays. The likes of Abbott’s [sic] have a subconscious thought process that goes something like this: those who are born poor and haven’t worked hard enough are too lazy to stop being poor and are lazy and dependant on hard working rich people who pay taxes. Rich people who pay taxes shouldn’t be relied on to fund the lives of lazy, immoral poor people who are too lazy to get rich and pay taxes. It’s immoral to let people be dependent on the government and a big government encourages people to be lazy and to depend on the government. Big government should be destroyed in preference for a small, useless, and not able to be dependable government. Users should pay their way, so user pays is the best system for funding everything including health, education, infrastructure, community, everything. If user can’t afford to pay, user doesn’t get and user should stop being so lazy and hungry and in need of shelter and should go and get rich so they’re not reliant on the rich people who have to pay tax to support them.

Despite all the evidence, and Piketty and his colleagues have accumulated bucket loads of data, the right-wing believers like Abbott and Hockey will never accept inequality as a problem. They continue to believe that greater national wealth benefits all, which is true to an extent, but not when the top one per cent take the majority of the increase in national wealth and the bottom ten per cent get the crumbs.

Inequality, even fairness, will not be addressed under an LNP government, not until the laissez-faire economic rationalists lose their grip on economic debate and political thinking. Even progressive parties may not tackle the issue effectively unless they also take a stand against the financial markets (perhaps financial transaction taxes) and reconsider taxing the rich and addressing the basic concerns of workers. Piketty, at least, has opened the way for that debate to happen.

* Since preparing this post, I have seen much more discussion of inequality in the Australian media but, as I suggest in the piece, it seems that the Hockey budget, rather than Piketty, has been the driving force for that discussion.

What do you think?

The Piketty divide: Part 1

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the twenty-first century has taken America by storm. It rose to the top of Amazon’s best-selling list. It brings a scholarly perspective to the issue of rising inequality and of wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few. It has been compared to Marx’s Das Kapital and it has been suggested that it may be as influential. It has also been compared to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States in 1963 for the reason that, like that work, it is based on extensive financial data that gives credence to its conclusions — although coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Piketty’s work, of course, is not universally acclaimed. There is a very clear divide between the Right and Left, between progressives and the more radical Left, and between the Anglosphere and the non-Anglo-speaking world.

Piketty, now a professor at the Paris School of Economics, went to MIT in America in 1993 when he was 22 and completed a doctorate on the theory behind tax policies. He returned to France after five years and has remained there since. In 2003 with Emmanuel Saez, another Frenchman, but at Berkley in California, he wrote a paper on inequality in the US between 1913 and 1998. Saez also worked with Piketty on the data for Capital in the twenty-first century.

In France, while the book was recognised as significant, it was not the runaway best seller that it became in America — it was 192nd on the French book publishers’ rankings. One reason is that inequality has long been central to political debate in France, with even the right-leaning Gaullists like Chirac supporting the need to mend the fractures in society. France already has an annual wealth tax on assets. So in that sense, the theme of Piketty’s work was not as novel in France as it appeared in America, dominated as it has been since the 1980s by economic thinking that does not believe that inequality is a problem.

The French Left was critical, considering Piketty did not go far enough: that he failed to discuss cultural and social domination, or violence against and exploitation of the lower classes, or alienation at work, or the role of class struggle.

Why all the fuss?

Piketty has a basic equation developed from tax data across a number of countries going back over two hundred years:

r > g

That is, the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of growth of income (g). Throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I, that greater rate of return led to high levels of inequality, with wealth concentrated at the top. In periods of high inequality, the rich can hold capital up to seven times the value of total national annual income (the capital/income ratio).

The rate of growth is influenced by population growth and productivity. Piketty’s data suggest that over the long run, income grows at 1‒1.5% while return on investment grows at 4‒5%. A period of declining inequality, between 1919 and the 1970s, occurred when the rate of growth exceeded the rate of return, fed by population growth, technological progress and government intervention.

As population growth slows (as it is already doing), Piketty suggests that the rate of growth will also slow and we will return to a situation similar to that before WWI. Various economists have already pointed to the slow down in economic growth since 1970, despite technical innovations like the spread of computers and the internet. An article in The Economist showed that annualised growth in the US averaged1.9% between 1947 and 1969, but only 0.8% between 1970 and 2012, creating a 35% gap in growth between where it actually is and where it would have been if the higher level of growth had continued.

One reviewer interpreted Piketty’s approach this way:

If you get slow growth alongside better financial returns, then inherited wealth will, on average, “dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labour by a wide margin” says Piketty. Wealth will concentrate to levels incompatible with democracy, let alone social justice. Capitalism, in short, automatically creates levels of inequality that are unsustainable.

For Piketty, the facts derived from his data indicate that this is the nature of capitalism. The period from WWI to the 1970s was an anomaly and Piketty makes the case that capital in its natural state does not tend to spread out or trickle down but to concentrate in the hands of a few.

The problem is that as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the rentiers it can lead to ‘patrimonial capitalism’ (where the economic elite mostly obtain their wealth through inheritance). Some have suggested an inconsistency to the extent that Piketty supports entrepreneurs but is concerned that when they are successful they then become rentiers, and their wealth is passed to the next generation who need undertake little productive activity to maintain that wealth. Piketty argues that if this is left unchecked, wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the few leading to greater levels of inequality.

Piketty acknowledges that the current situation in the US is different. There, the current increase in inequality has come from the rise of what he calls ‘supersalaries’. Unlike other countries, in the US, 60% of the income of the top 1% comes from ‘labour income’ (the salary packages of the CEOs of large corporations); only in the top 0.1% does income from capital predominate. Although, clearly, within a decade or two this wealth may well turn to inherited wealth based on the accumulated capital.

In an interview where it was put to Piketty that Americans have earned their wealth rather than inherited it, he replied:

This is what the winners of the game like to claim. But for the losers this can be the worst of all worlds: they have a diminishing share of income and wealth, and at the same time they are depicted as undeserving.

A key aspect of Piketty’s work, however, is that it presents a challenge to current mainstream economic thinking.

To understand why the mainstream finds this proposition so annoying, you have to understand that “distribution” — the polite name for inequality — was thought to be a closed subject. Simon Kuznets, the Belarussian émigré who became a major figure in American economics, used the [then] available data to show that, while societies become more unequal in the first stages of industrialisation, inequality subsides as they achieve maturity. This “Kuznets Curve” had been accepted by most parts of the economics profession until Piketty and his collaborators produced the evidence that it is false.

Piketty himself said regarding his approach:

I am trying to put the distributional question and the study of long-run trends back at the heart of economic analysis. In that sense, I am pursuing a tradition which was pioneered by the economists of the 19th century, including David Ricardo and Karl Marx.

So he is also attempting to return economics to the political economics of the best nineteenth century economic thinkers and also return to data as the basis of findings, rather than abstract theories and mathematical formulae.

The Left is not entirely happy with Piketty’s analysis, for example:

… Piketty’s almost exclusive metrics are inequality of income and wealth. They are important to be sure. Let us remember, though, that despite less inequality, most of the period 1913-1950 was hellish for the masses in the capitalist world. They died by the millions in the first world war, made little economic progress in the 1920s, suffered the hunger of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and died by millions more in the second world war. On the other hand, while inequality was high in the late nineteenth century and up to 1913, the working class did make advances, by militant struggle largely under the socialist banner, in obtaining fruits of industrial progress.

John Kenneth Galbraith, a progressive economist, while accepting the value of Piketty’s work has some criticisms.

Firstly, he rejects that the tax records on which Piketty relies are the only way to gather long term records — Piketty’s most complete records are French estate tax records dating back to shortly after the French revolution in 1789. Galbraith has used US payroll records back to 1920 to come to similar conclusions about growing inequality in America.

Galbraith also has difficulties with Piketty’s use of the term ‘capital’. He suggests that Piketty conflates physical capital equipment with all forms of money-valued wealth, including land and housing, whether that wealth is in productive use or not. Piketty’s measure of capital, therefore, is not physical but financial: ‘The problem is that while physical and price changes are obviously different, Piketty treats them as if they were aspects of the same thing.’ Galbraith suggests that (apart from World War II when the UK and Europe did suffer significant physical destruction) it was changes in the market value of wealth that reduced inequality between 1914 and 1950. He writes: ‘A simple mind might say that it’s market value rather than physical quantity that is changing and that market value is driven by financialization and exaggerated by bubbles, rising where they are permitted and falling when they pop.’

Galbraith also wrote:

The evolution of inequality is not a natural process. The massive equalization in the United States between 1941 and 1945 was due to mobilization conducted under strict price controls alongside confiscatory top tax rates. The purpose was to double output without creating wartime millionaires. Conversely the purpose of supply-side economics after 1980 was (mainly) to enrich the rich. In both cases, policy largely achieved the effect intended.

That gives rise to another issue embedded in Piketty’s work: the role of policy and politics.

As John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker in reviewing Piketty’s work:

The Great Depression wiped out a lot of dynastic wealth, and it also led to a policy revolution. During the nineteen-thirties and forties, Piketty reminds us, Roosevelt raised the top rate of income tax to more than ninety per cent and the tax on large estates to more than seventy per cent. The federal government set minimum wages in many industries, and it encouraged the growth of trade unions. In the decades after the war, it spent heavily on infrastructure, such as interstate highways, which boosted GDP growth. … Inequality started to rise again only when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led a conservative counter-revolution that slashed tax rates on the rich, decimated unions, and sought to restrain the growth of government expenditures. Politics and income distribution are two sides of the same coin. [emphasis added]

Piketty himself acknowledges this:

A quick glance at the curves describing income and wealth inequality or the capital/income ratio is enough to show that politics is ubiquitous and that economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined and must be studied together.

US inequality is now close to the levels of income concentration that prevailed in Europe around 1900-10. History suggests that this kind of inequality is not only useless for growth, it can also lead to a capture of the political process by a tiny high-income and high-wealth elite. This directly threatens our democratic institutions and values. [emphasis added]

The point that the progressives and Piketty make is that government policy plays a major role in economics generally, and in controlling inequality in particular. If government does not fulfil that role, then, as Piketty suggests, it leaves the way open for the economic elite to also capture the political process.

The major criticism of Piketty is for his policy conclusions: he recommends higher marginal tax rates for high incomes and a global wealth tax, although conceding that his recommendations may be utopian. His more vocal critics have picked this up and derided his policy proposals. Even supporters have suggested alternative approaches: Galbraith suggests that a large rise in the minimum wage in America would have the effect of reducing the amount available for the accumulation of wealth at the top levels; others have suggested more government regulation can have the same effect.

What do you think, so far?

Who’s right?

Back in April, Senator Brandis wrote an article (reported on the ABC) in which he claimed that although he believed humans were causing global warming he was ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate change deniers’. He went on to say that people who think the science is settled are ‘ignorant and medieval’.

Adam Bandt for the Greens responded:

“If someone said ‘two plus two equals five’, would you insist on giving them as much airtime in the media as someone who said ‘two plus two equals four’.

The science community is now essentially speaking with one voice. To say someone without science training can somehow simply on a free speech basis say that they’re all wrong is a very feudal way of thinking.”

These statements raise concerns regarding climate change and free speech. But there is another issue embedded in them which is the one I want to explore: the role of experts in shaping government policy.

Human society has always used experts, even if early on they were identified by experience, status or age. In our modern society technical and scientific expertise has grown exponentially as we have become more dependent on science and the technology arising from it. That has also been reflected in the legislation going through our parliament. The first parliament in 1901 passed 17 acts in total, including matters of post and telegraph services, and distillation, the only two which may have required some expert advice. Between 2008 and 2012 an average of 220 acts per year was passed including on such matters as offshore petroleum, greenhouse gas storage, nuclear terrorism, road safety and higher education, each of which, among many others, would have required expert input.

While expert input may seem essential for some issues, governments, unfortunately, also use experts to avoid responsibility for their decisions. They establish an ‘expert’ committee and then claim their decision is based on the committee’s advice or evidence, thereby implying they essentially had ‘no choice’ in their final decision.

That leads to the crux of the problem: that the use of experts is inherently undemocratic as the expert becomes an ‘authority’ presenting decisions of public policy, whereas democracy is meant to be based on keeping ‘authority’ in check.

The ultimate outcome can be the rise of a ‘technocracy’ — government by technocrats, or experts. Underlying the technocrat approach is the belief that expertise and knowledge will lead to the best rational decision, one that cannot really be questioned because non-experts, including politicians, are not qualified to judge what the experts are saying.

In the 1990s there were fears that the European Union (EU) was going that way largely due to the regulations being made by the European Commission. While the regulations may have been based on the best technical and scientific advice, they were often met by resistance in some nations of the EU, both by politicians and the public. This meant the advice became politicised, but that helped slow the descent towards a technocracy. Despite that, there is a history of experts determining policy in a number of northern European nations, in particular Germany.

A problem for politicians, especially as regards scientific advice, is that scientific results can contain a number of uncertainties. Although this is part of normal scientific enquiry, and promotes further research and refining of theories and models (such as in the current climate change science), it does not necessarily provide a solid basis for decision making. Put simply, politicians often need to act before the science is conclusive.

There is also growing distrust of experts among the populace, for a number of reasons: the political use of experts to justify disputed decisions; the problems that have arisen from following experts previously (that is, the introduction of technology that has initially enhanced our lives but subsequently led to environmental or social problems); fears of the potential rise of a technocracy and the loss of democratic power, and a more educated and informed populace that is better able to question.

On the other hand, the public is reliant on science for risks we face that our normal senses cannot perceive, such as radiation or the detection of the ozone hole in the 1980s. You might say it is a ‘love/hate’ relationship we have with the experts.

Of course, governments and politicians rely on other ‘experts’ outside the technical and scientific areas, such as in economics and education. Neither of these can be called sciences in the sense that it is rare that they can reach irrefutable conclusions, such as two oxygen atoms and a carbon atom making up carbon dioxide. Economics claims to be a science but given its predictive history (an ability of solid science) it can hardly claim that title. We have only to look at economic forecasts and how often they have to be changed, or how often they do not foresee the next recession (when did they ever foresee one?). Why would the public put their faith in such experts?

The other claim the public often rejects is that these ‘experts’ are the sole repository of expertise in their field. Individuals can also be experts, particularly as regards local knowledge. A classic case occurred in England after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Radiation was detected in Cumbrian sheep fields but the scientists said that this would quickly be ‘immobilised’ in the soil and pose no significant danger. They were wrong on three counts:

1. their advice related primarily to alkaline clay soils but the Cumbrian area was acidic peat;
2. they failed to consider that the radiation could enter the human food chain from sheep grazing on the local grasses; and
3. the farmers also had detailed knowledge of local changes over a number of years and eventually the scientists were forced to concede (and accept the local knowledge) that the radiation came not from Chernobyl but the nearby Sellarfield nuclear reprocessing facility.

This raises another issue, that when expert advice enters the public arena it can be judged not by what it says but by a number of other criteria, including whether or not it concurs with local knowledge which, as shown in Cumbria, can also be a valid source of expertise.

So the question becomes if we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them, what do we do?

One approach is education and awareness, making the public more aware of research and its findings. This requires experts participating in public fora, airing their research in the media and engaging in public debate. The Australian National University (ANU) has a specific policy on this and states that it will support its academics in public debate if the policy is adhered to. The preamble states that:

Academics have an obligation to present their expertise outside the strictly academic context: they are expected to inform public debate from the perspective their scholarly expertise brings to an issue.

But the policy notes:

In public debate, such as opinion pieces or columns in the media, it is generally not possible to provide a detailed scholarly justification of the position adopted, nor to present every possible perspective on an issue: but it is expected that the position adopted should be defensible and that justification for it should be available or able to be given at a level which would be of acceptable standard in the field of scholarship.

The latter statement suggests one difficulty for experts involved in public issues. They cannot necessarily explain all the intricacies, uncertainties or assumptions that underlie their position. Overseas research suggests that academics draw a line between internal discussion (within their discipline) and public discussion of their discipline, feeling, particularly in scientific areas, that the public has limited competence in dealing with their detailed findings.

The ‘public competence’ may actually be a public questioning because many aspects of expertise are contested and it can take time for experts to reach a consensus. In such situations, the scientific or other expertise is not really adding to public understanding but perhaps only confusing it, and it does not provide certainty to the public nor provide the level of guidance necessary for decision making by public officials and politicians.

While governments claim to seek ‘evidence-based’ policy, in my 30 years as a public servant this was just as often ‘policy-based evidence’ — that is finding the evidence that will support the position the government intends to take. That was an approach I had to adopt on a number of occasions (for governments of both persuasions). So divergences in expert opinion can also mean their advice is used to justify pre-existing positions, just by picking which expert agrees.

There are also calls by some for greater public participation in technical and scientific debates and, particularly, in framing the policy arising from such debates. This is relatively new, in the sense that the dominant form of participation has usually been after the policy is decided, in implementing the policy or taking actions arising from it, such as reducing household energy usage as one step to assist in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

If there is greater involvement, how does the public judge what the experts are saying?

Such judgments will inevitably be coloured by local experience: for example, support for climate action in Australia was at its highest during the drought from 2002 to 2006, a time when it could be said that local experience seemed in accord with what the experts were saying. But as we have seen, that local experience varies over time and with it the judgments the public makes. Local knowledge also does not help in understanding issues that may be relevant on a much wider scale — which is one reason global warming is a difficult concept to grasp when there are no immediate signs of it in one’s own locality.

Politicians face the same problems. A research paper prepared by the Parliamentary Library in October 2013 addresses how lay persons, including politicians, judge technical and scientific knowledge. One means is ‘social expertise’, our general understanding of our own society and the role of the various players in it: it allows us to make judgments about who we agree with rather than scientific judgments on what ought to be believed. In making such judgments the paper goes on to suggest the following questions should be answered:

  • Can I make sense of the arguments?
  • Which expert seems the more credible?
  • Who has the numbers on their side?
  • Are there any relevant interests or biases?
  • What are the experts’ track records?
The paper concedes that even answering these questions can still be problematic but suggests that using them together can improve their strength and reliability. They are questions that can be used by politicians when assessing expert opinion coming before parliamentary committees.

If our politicians actually used this approach there would be no question in Australia regarding anthropogenic global warming.

Even with the best advice and with understanding of the expert knowledge, or at least judgments about it, the decisions to be made often require much broader considerations. There are value or moral judgments to be made in deciding policy. Even if the experts are all pointing in the same direction, will a policy arising from that advice be right, fair and just? Economic and social implications also come into the argument, which is where Abbott won the debate on climate change when in opposition.

Additionally, even when expert advice is accepted that does not mean there is agreement on what should be done. There is often much more debate about what measures should be taken and that depends on many other issues and power relationships.

The politicisation of expert advice, while creating some problems, is as it should be, for without that we would become a technocracy. The outcomes and policies arising from expert advice still need to be debated publicly in the political sphere.

Finding the expert who is right becomes not just a matter of the research they have undertaken, but of their standing and acceptability — both socially and politically; of whether following their advice will produce fair and just outcomes; and of how their advice plays out politically between competing interests. So, no matter how technically or scientifically good the advice, it is likely that differences will remain, not so much regarding the expertise, but in terms of who to believe and what to do about it.

What do you think?

The speech I would like to hear

Last year on TPS I posted a blog ‘What happened to leadership and conviction?’ and bemoaned the fact that modern politicians are so poll-driven, rather than seeking to drive the polls by driving the policy debate. This year in a number of posts, ‘Whither the Left’, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’ and ‘The wonderful world of the economic rationalists’, I have also raised alternative approaches for Labor. (This piece can also be considered as Part 4 of ‘Whither the Left’.)

I thought rather than simply be critical, or make suggestions from the sidelines, I should put my words where my mouth is and actually come up with a speech I would like to hear.

Here is the speech I would like to hear from Labor as a step towards government. I am not a speechwriter, but this provides the gist of what I think should be said.

It is basically a political speech that could be used by Labor, generally taking the more moderate, more pragmatic approach to the issues raised in the earlier articles. It does not go into policy detail (that will have to come later) but can be seen as the philosophical introduction to the actual policies. It aims, as I have suggested previously, at changing the tenor of the economic debate.

Leading the way

Good evening to all of you, the members of this great nation, Australia.

We are each a member of a single nation, and like members of any organisation, we share its good times, we share its hard times, and pull together through thick and thin.

We have a great nation. It can and should be better.

We founded Australia as a nation in 1901 based on a great democratic tradition that brought ordinary people into the political process, even into the Parliament itself.

We did not have elites born to rule us and we did not need them. We described ourselves as the ‘land of the fair go’ and believed every one should have the opportunity to live the life they chose.

Most importantly, we believed everyone was equal. Anyone could aspire to be a Member of Parliament, or even Prime Minister.

Anyone could aspire to the vocation they wanted, based only on merit, not their background.

Everyone could aspire to create a better world for their children.

Where we were born, or to whom we were born was not meant to be a consideration.

At different times, not everyone was included in the vision but over time our vision of Australia became more inclusive. Our forebears knew then, as we know now, that our nation can always move forward, always be better than it is.

Now is one of those times when we need to take another step forward to aspire to an Australia that is greater, fairer, and more caring of its people.

It is time to address some of our current weaknesses and move forward. Not ignore them — as the current government is doing — and drift backwards, losing the gains our grandparents made, abandoning the aspirations of the nation.

There is more than enough evidence that there are still areas of weakness in our social and economic institutions.

Our economy is losing low-skilled jobs, so education and training, and re-training, are becoming more important, not less important.

Our population is ageing, so more needs to be done to encourage active ageing, allowing people to continue to contribute to our society, whether that is in employment or volunteering. The only answer the current government has is to increase the pension age.

We are losing manufacturing industries and more needs to be done to encourage the industries and jobs of the future. The Coalition government simply watched it happen. At the last election, it promised a million new jobs knowing full well that was no more than normal growth as it had been for the previous decade — it was a promise to do nothing, which is exactly what the government did.

And despite our nation increasing its wealth for a generation, inequality in our communities has increased. That needs to be addressed, not ignored, as this government would have you believe.

I know some will react by saying nothing can be done unless we have a strong economy.

That is self-evident.

But what is the point of a strong economy:

— if school children are being left behind because their schools do not have sufficient resources

— if people are dying because our hospitals are overcrowded and under-resourced,

— if people are working but still earning barely enough to survive,

— if our nation is in flames from the effects of climate change.

Every year we delay addressing these things, is another year that will add to the cost of rectifying them in the future. Another year that will actually weaken our economy.

Our future economy will not be strong if we do not have enough tradespeople and graduates coming out of our TAFE colleges and universities.

Our future economy will not be strong if people are sick for longer because we failed to provide adequate health services.

Our future economy will not be strong if we are spending more and more on the ravages of bushfires, of more frequent droughts, of rising sea levels, because we did nothing now.

A strong economy also needs quality infrastructure. The Coalition will cry ‘debt’, just like the boy who cried wolf. But it is the same type of debt that you go into when buying a home. You finish up with an asset that is worth more, that can be passed to your children. It is the same for the nation. If we have to borrow to provide essential infrastructure, it is for the benefit of the nation as a whole and enhances our nation both for us and for future generations. Quality infrastructure boosts national productivity and national wealth, and that flows into higher government revenue to improve education and health and all the other services we need.

A strong economy requires the merging of the work of our scientists and researchers with that of enterprises and entrepreneurs to improve products, create new products, and new processes for producing them. That will not happen if, like the current government, we continually reduce funding for research.

It will require us to identify and improve the services we can provide to other nations, just as we already provide educational and engineering services.

A strong economy requires skilling our workforce and having managers working smarter. It requires high quality students coming into the workforce, bringing new skills and new ideas. It requires all parties listening and sharing and working together, at the enterprise level, the industry level and nationally. And in these times, internationally.

It requires people being supported in their work and feeling a sense of achievement in what they do. From the highest to the lowest paid, every role is essential — a CEO relies on a cleaner as much as an airline pilot relies on an aircraft maintenance worker.

It requires that those who are not working have other ways of maintaining their self-esteem. Without that they will not become productive workers when the opportunity arises, or effective volunteers if they are already retirees. Each requires that sense of belonging and of being able to contribute to our society.

What the other side won’t tell you is that the economy is about people. An economy is not something that exists in a vacuum. It is the product of the effort of the people.

There is no economy without you and for that reason you should feel part of the economy.

And people deserve to benefit from their part in maintaining our economy. They need to feel they are receiving a fair share of the national wealth they have helped create.

A strong economy should provide for the people. They should feel included and secure. They should know that government will help in those times when they need help; that the government will help when transitions are taking place in our economy and in our lives as a community.

A strong economy should create wellbeing for all of our people. People should feel happy and satisfied, not just in their work but in their lives. That is the ultimate aim of a successful economy. And that cannot be measured just in dollars and cents.

At present Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the main measure of our economy but it simply adds together the value of all the products and services we provide.

For example, a house that is destroyed in a bushfire adds twice to the GDP: once when it was first built, and again when it is rebuilt after the fire. But GDP takes no notice of the loss of that house, nor the devastating impact that loss had on the family that occupied it.

GDP also takes no account of damage to the environment — although the costs of rectifying that damage will be considerable. It takes no account of the depletion of our natural resources. Yes, some of that is necessary for our economy but we also need to be mindful of future generations and what resources we will be leaving for them. We must find the right balance between the economy and our environment, and to do that we need to look at our economy differently.

It is time we included other measures of our economic progress, because, in reality, GDP only measures our economic activity — GDP would count the money spent rectifying environmental damage as a plus, something that adds to GDP. That seems a strange way to measure the strength and sustainability of our economy!

There are already new measures available and being developed. Some focus on wellbeing. Some take account of the costs of achieving GDP growth.

My government will examine these and see which we can use in Australia, which will genuinely measure our progress as a people and as a nation.

To make the economy work at its best we need a strong people bound together. People are not bound together by a philosophy that encourages greed or promotes every man and woman for themselves. We must maintain our traditional ethos of the fair go and of helping a mate.

I believe Australians are bound together by our sense of fairness, by our sense of equality. We need to build on that.

As a government we will also be honest with you and explain what we intend doing and more importantly, why we are doing it. It is true that sometimes government decisions can cause difficulties for some, although of benefit to the nation as a whole. If we all understand why such a decision has to be made, then both the government and the people can ensure that our sense of fairness comes into play to support those who lose out until the wider benefits become apparent.

We will bring a different focus to the role of government:

We will focus on food security, not just agriculture as an industry. That will include underpinning the food security of other nations through our agricultural exports.

We will focus on our social strength, not just social security as a means of making welfare payments. We will strengthen the role of communities and people in supporting their neighbours.

We will focus on wellbeing, not just health. We will include active ageing and the vitality of our communities.

We will focus on the best use of our workforce, not just employment. That means skilling our people, but also encouraging innovative management approaches and innovative businesses, both small and large.

We will focus on environmental sustainability in which climate change is a critical but not the sole part. We will include what needs to be done to maintain our river basins and ground water so that communities and enterprises will also have access in the future.

We will focus on the breadth of our economy not just individual industry policies and ensure an approach that adds to our future strength.

We will focus on energy security. That will mean looking across all our energy sources, not individual sources and their associated industries in isolation.

But our main focus will be you, the members of our Australian nation. All of our decisions, including our economic decisions, will be made against the underlying principle of what can best improve the wellbeing of our people.

We have reached this point because of the inaction and wasted opportunities of previous Coalition governments who believed in so-called ‘trickle down’ economics: the belief that greater national wealth would benefit all — but that has not always been the case. They provided tax cuts instead of providing infrastructure for our future, for our children and our grandchildren. Yes, we all like tax cuts but if they cost us better schools and hospitals, if they cost us the NDIS and a future-proof fibre network, are they worth it? It only makes it more difficult for our future generations to maintain a strong economy and a strong society.

We must always remember that the decisions we make now are not just for ourselves but for our children, our children’s children and their children. We want them to enjoy life in Australia as we have done and not pass to them something in which they find only sacrifice to save the nation. If we do not take the first steps now that is what they will face.

We may not have time to complete the job but at least we will be able to say to future generations, we started the job, we did our best, and we have strengthened our nation enough for you to build on and continue making it a great nation, a nation always moving forwards, that can hold its head up in all the councils of the world.

We can achieve this. Labor will lead the way.

We will … [then follows the policy detail.]

What else can you add to the speech?

What else should a left-of-centre party (Labor) be saying to win votes?

What can be borrowed from the radical Left?

What do you think?

Bikies, Bullying and Bigotry

It takes a certain amount of self-belief and trust in yourself to get to the top of any profession. Some knowledge also helps. However some people who rise to the top of various professions seem to be able to retain a sense of humbleness and a keen interest in their fellow humans — others don’t. In recent years we have seen almost every ALP government in Australia consigned to the dustbin of history, to be replaced with various forms of conservative government. While ALP governments are not perfect and there has been extensive discussion here and elsewhere as to how the ALP can revitalise so they can re-attract the voters that have ‘swallowed’ the conservatives ‘you can trust us’ campaign, let’s look at the mindset of two conservative Governments in Australia and their treatment of members of their own community.

Did you hear the one about the seven friends that went to a bar? They were arrested. No — it’s not a failed attempt at humour — it is an actual event that happened on November 1st 2013 at Yandina (which is located near the Sunshine Coast in Queensland). The reason they were arrested was that they are alleged to have connections with an ‘outlaw’ motorcycle club.

Under Queensland’s Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act (2013) — also known as the VLAD Laws — it is illegal for three or more members of an organisation declared illegal under the VLAD Laws to be in the one location at the same time. Originally, five of those having a drink were arrested, later two additional people were prosecuted as ‘police said they found criminal motorcycle gang “paraphernalia” at the homes of the two men’, who are alleged to be members of the Rebels Motorcycle Club.

All of the Yandina Seven — as the media has named them — have subsequently spent up to three months in ‘solitary confinement’ in Queensland prisons where they were effectively locked up for 22 hours a day. Their trials are currently scheduled for November 2014. Regardless of the ‘detection’ of ‘motorcycle gang paraphernalia’, most of the seven arrested were related and while it is possible that they were discussing how to perform illegal activity — they could have also been discussing the upcoming first birthday of the child of one of the men involved. The VLAD laws do not require the police to prove that people were planning covert or illegal activity prior to arrest and imprisonment.

According to the explanatory notes for the VLAD legislation:

The primary objective of the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill 2013 is to:

disestablish associations that encourage, foster or support persons who commit serious offences; and

increase public safety and security by the disestablishment of the associations; and

deny to persons who commit serious offences the assistance and support gained from association with other persons who participate in the affairs of the associations.

The structure and operation of these criminal associations poses particular challenges to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The association often provides members with the impetus, support and infrastructure to further their criminal activities and their violent behavior.

While the stated intent of the VLAD Laws is to ‘disestablish associations that encourage, foster or support persons who commit serious offences’ is a crime against the English language in itself, there is some evidence that the law is being used to cover a multitude of ‘sins’. This account of the Queensland police arresting someone who was using a former motorcycle clubhouse for another business is disturbing. Will they be arresting the New South Wales State of Origin team if they beat Queensland this year so that the threat to Queensland life can be ‘disestablished’?

Even the Courier Mail is reporting that Newman is being accused of bullying the judiciary, over bailing people rather than imprisoning those accused of offences under the VLAD Laws. The alternative to bail is ‘solitary confinement’ — the fate of the Yandina Seven.

It is now history that Campbell Newman resigned as Brisbane’s Lord Mayor shortly prior to the last Local Government elections ensuring the chosen replacement Graham Quirk did not have to face a by-election to assume the role of Lord Mayor. Newman became the ‘Party Leader’ of the LNP without a seat in the State Parliament and subsequently won the 2012 Queensland election with a massive majority.

Within 100 days of the state election, Independent Australia was comparing Newman to famed Queensland Premier Bjelke-Petersen, who was never cleared of corruption charges. While it could be claimed that Independent Australia was no friend of conservative political parties, The Australian, clearly had similar concerns with Newman’s maiden speech in Parliament.

Queensland’s Attorney-General is lawyer Jarrod Bleijie who at the age of 32 has been a member of Parliament since 2009. He is responsible for the maintenance of law and order in Queensland — including introducing the VLAD Laws and appointing judges in Queensland. Since the 2012 election, one female and 17 male judges have been appointed in Queensland. Bleijie seems to think that confidential conversations between he and the judiciary are suitable for media release — with support from Newman. Justice McMurdo has a greater sense of proprietary it seems.

The Sunshine Coast Daily looks at the over-regulation of the VLAD Laws, suggesting

Many would argue the strangest new set of laws belongs to Kawana MP and Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, who introduced the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill 2013 or VLAD law to clamp down on rogue bikies

and expands the issue by looking at the Federal Attorney-General’s comment that bigotry is acceptable. The paper points out it may be ‘appropriate’ to denigrate fair skin aboriginals as Andrew Bolt did, but it is illegal to let a helium balloon go on the Sunshine Coast or, rather than talking to your neighbour, you can send a formal notice to remove the tree branch that overhangs your fence.

On a serious note, the Federal Attorney-General did claim Australians have the right to be bigots. While the Federal Government’s first law officer may believe that bigotry is acceptable, others don’t, including The Age and Amy Stockwell who writes for Mamamia, a website that describes its purpose as ‘absolutely everything is up for discussion: from pop culture to politics, body image to motherhood, feminism to fashion’, explains:

Importantly, the judge found Bolt had no defence under section 18D because the articles were not written in good faith and “contained errors of fact, distortions of truth and inflammatory and provocative language”.

On hearing the decision, Andrew Bolt immediately declared it “a terrible day for free speech in this country”. Bolt’s supporters tended to agree.

In August 2012, Tony Abbott made a pre-election address to the conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and committed to repealing the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act that allowed Bolt to be sued.

It seems that this is one promise Tony Abbott intends to keep.

In the 1970s, a Detroit radio announcer, Tom Clay, explored what bullying and bigotry has achieved in the middle of the 20th Century.

The point demonstrated by Tom Clay is that bullying, bigotry and hatred are learned behaviours. In a country where politicians seem to find a benefit in being ‘practising Christians’ and Abbott wears his Catholicism as a badge of honour, bullying of select groups in the community and the promotion of bigotry seems to be a permitted activity. So much for the ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ tenet in the Bible, the source moral textbook for all the different ‘brands’ of Christianity from the Catholics through to the ‘born again’.

Some Catholic Clergy have a phrase for those who religiously attend church (pun intended) on a Sunday and then practice completely different beliefs for the remaining 167 hours a week — they are ‘one hour a week Catholics’ (the typical length of a Catholic Sunday Mass). Abbott claims to be a practicing Catholic, Newman claims to have faith and while he isn’t, his immediate family are practising Catholics — yet both of them lead governments that are attempting to return their communities to a time where bullying, bigotry and hatred are acceptable learned behaviours.

Is this a case of politics alters the moral compass of these people or that they will say and do whatever is necessary to gain a few more votes?

What do you think?

Letter to Bill Shorten - part 2

Here is the second part of a letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, written by an ardent Labor supporter, Ad Astra. 

The Hon Bill Shorten, MP Leader of the Federal Opposition 
Dear Mr Shorten

Health and disability 

Labor has a proud record in health care, one acknowledged by the electorate. It introduced Medicare, which LNP governments so far have been too timid to dismantle, so popular has it been, although the Commission of Audit would have it emasculated. Last term it introduced its groundbreaking and highly applauded Disability Care, which the Commission of Audit would slow down, leaving the disabled waiting yet again. 

Australia has one of the best health care systems in the world. Its maintenance and improvement is Labor’s task. The LNP’s focus is on the sustainability of funding for health and disability care, a laudable enough objective, but we know ‘sustainability’ will be used as a lever for cuts to services, as the Commission of Audit so vividly exemplifies. 

Labor should be formulating how it would sustain funding, rather than harping on LNP cuts. It should be leading the way, but so far we have seen almost no proactive leadership on health from Labor since the election. 

Aged care, dementia care, disability care and hospital care are becoming major areas of concern. The need for, and the cost of supportive services will rise inexorably. Labor must stress the importance of basing our health care system on first-rate primary care that offers emergency care, preventive care and chronic illness management via the nation’s well-trained general practitioners. This nation must prepare for these areas of escalating cost now, but not through counter-productive penalties such as a co-payment on bulk-billed services. 

Recommendation: That Labor seizes the initiative on health, aged and disability care, and not only widely promulgates its plans for enhancement, but also its detailed plans for sustaining funding in the decades ahead. It must take the lead in this, its traditional area. 


Here is another area where Labor has a fine record, which is consistently acknowledged by the electorate. Its Gonski initiative was widely applauded, so much so that the LNP was forced to endorse it pre-election, only to seek to dilute it post-election to suit its ideological position, and delay it, purportedly for budgetary reasons. Labor has always insisted on enabling education for all who might be capable of benefitting from it, be it at in the pre-school, school, tertiary or trade sectors. The LNP sees education as being for those who can pay for it, for the ‘better class of kiddies’ who deserve it most. The Commission of Audit would have the Gonski reforms disabled or even abandoned, and education handed to the states. Labor must counter this, knowing that education for all enhances the individual, increases productivity, and lifts the nation up. 

This nation simply cannot afford to fall behind its Asian neighbours. 

Recommendation: That Labor re-asserts its preeminence in education, insists on the full implementation of the Gonski recommendations, and fashions a funding schedule that will enable this, even if that requires additional levies or taxes. 

Taxation and transfer payments 

Labor has traditionally been sympathetic to the needs of the elderly, the retired, the disabled and the less well-off. It has supported and increased pension payments and other benefits. The cost is projected to rise inexorably. Labor must develop a plan to sustain these benefits where they are justified. That will not be easy. It will almost certainly require stricter means testing so that those who most need support receive it, and those who don’t, do not. Moreover, increased taxes are certain to be needed. Instead of pretending that Labor can manage to support transfer payments without tax increases, it should advocate increasing direct and indirect taxes. It should not play a political game by opposing discussion of GST changes. Whilst acknowledging that the GST is a regressive tax, which most hurts the less well off, it cannot be beyond the wit of Labor to propose changes that do not hurt the poor. For example, a GST on food, education and health care could be offset by a graduated discount system for those below certain income levels. 

Balanced economists identify PM Howard’s use of the deluge of revenue during the mining boom to buy votes through middle class welfare and tax cuts as a major cause of our current difficulties. Labor should make this clear whilst acknowledging its own contribution to the escalation of welfare. It should acknowledge that structural defects in the federal budget simply must be remedied. 

Labor ought to be echoing Joe Hockey’s mantra that the age of entitlement is over, but focus its attention on corporate welfare, welfare for those who do not need it, and other tax refuges of the wealthy, specifically negative gearing. Instead of shrinking from addressing this thorny issue, it ought to have the courage to insist its enormous cost to the budget be exposed, and that steps be taken to phase it out gradually. Superannuation needs graded boosting to 15% so that the less well-off become less reliant on the aged pension. Superannuation tax concessions that unreasonably favour the wealthy should be reduced and gradually phased out. Increasing the pensionable age, and taking steps to take into account the value of the family home and other assets in allocating a pension, must be considered. Let’s not play political games with tax issues, even if the LNP does. They are too crucial to be the subject of point-scoring skirmishes.

Recommendation: That Labor takes the lead in addressing the structural defects in the nation’s tax and transfer system, and insists on open debate to find lasting solutions.


Labor ought not allow Tony Abbott to brazenly steal the mantle of ‘the infrastructure PM’. Labor has always given due prominence to infrastructure, and should ensure that its strong record and its future commitment to infrastructure is widely publicised. Anthony Albanese has been a vocal advocate for the infrastructure this nation needs. Labor should avoid the pointless ‘road versus rail’ debate that the LNP seems to enjoy. 

Recommendation: That Labor re-asserts its preeminence in infrastructure development and wrests the initiative from the Coalition and its ‘infrastructure’ prime minister.

Public debate 

The electorate’s perception of politicians is governed mainly by their public utterances inside and outside of parliament. 

Question Time, even for those who do not have the time to watch it directly, is publicised on every TV and radio outlet. Perhaps more than anything else, QT has weighed down politicians with the unseemly cloak of adversarial discord, abuse, anger, shouting, lies and deception. Politicians are seen simply as ugly point-scoring street fighters. Yet politicians ought to be admired and respected. The fact that they rate with used car salesmen and journalists as the least respected professionals shows how lowly they have sunk in the public’s estimation. This demeans our democracy. 

Labor should take the lead in elevating public discourse. In QT, instead of always seeking to score points that will be seen on the 6 o’clock news, why not ask questions of profound importance to our nation, and ask them in a sincere yet inquisitive fashion, free of angry rhetoric, nasty innuendo and finger pointing. If Labor must embarrass the government, ask penetrating questions that probe weaknesses in policy, dishonesty, lack of clarity, inefficiency, and malign intent, and do so benignly with everyday words uncontaminated with venom and anger. In my view, that would have a more shocking effect on the government and a more enthusiastic acceptance by the electorate. It would contrast with the angry outbursts and the sarcastic words we see from LNP politicians almost every day. 

Labor spokespersons should talk as statesmen do. They ought to move the standard of discourse from gutter talk to the uplifting language of the statesman and the diplomat. It can’t be that hard. 

This is not to say that exuberance, enthusiasm and passion should not suffuse Labor talk. These attributes are essential, but they can be conveyed without venom, nastiness, sarcasm, rudeness and disrespect.

Recommendation: That Labor reviews all the avenues it has for making public utterances, and refashions them in a way that will garner public respect. This is urgent.


Getting Labor’s messages across will not be easy. It will require skillful ‘marketing’ if I may use that awkward word, of the Labor ‘brand’, another uncomfortable expression. The LNP has been quite brilliant at marketing its brand and framing the political debate. It has used weasel words, words devoid of substance but with a glossy exterior, just as weasels suck eggs dry, leaving only the shiny shell. What Labor needs to do is expose the substance of its progressive policies, and dress it in attractive garb with words that are understandable, appealing and memorable. It can’t be that hard, yet Labor has regularly failed to do this. The result has been that good policies have been misunderstood, or not understood at all, have been poorly ‘sold’, have been countered with ease by Labor’s opponents, and have too often been rejected by the electorate. 

Labor simply must do better. There must be advisers out there who could help Labor fashion its messages, its purposes and its plans in a way that would match Coalition slogans such as: ‘stop the boats’, ‘axe the tax’, ‘we must live within our means’, ‘budget emergency’, and ‘we must all do the heavy lifting’, that have served the LNP so well. 

Words count. Persuasive words garner support. They don’t have to be erudite, only plausible. Framing the debate in a way that advantages Labor is essential.  Labor’s advisors need to study the works of George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, particularly Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives ThinkThe Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics; and Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate -The Essential Guide for Progressives. The insights these works provide ought to be applied to every aspect of Labor’s policy, but perhaps most of all to the economy, which is so central to the electorate’s thinking. 

Recommendation: That Labor takes the initiative in framing the debate on all policy issues.

A final comment 

I could write on and on, covering other policy areas, but this letter is already long enough. 

Suffice it is to say that in the view of this Labor supporter, and I suspect many, many others, Labor needs to make profound changes to its organisation, its governance, its membership base, its financial support, and the way it presents its policies and plans to the public. People like me support Labor because it is built on an ideological foundation stone of fairness, equal opportunity, equity, concern for the less well off and the disadvantaged, full employment, sustainable economic prosperity, and concern for the environment and the pursuit of its sustainability, and because its policies seek to make possible those worthy aims. These progressive ideals contrast starkly with many conservative ideals, which seem to favour the wealthy, disadvantage the poor and the weak, and foster a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset, with those at the bottom of the pile receiving only the crumbs from the rich man’s table, a phenomenon glorified by the discredited theory of ‘trickle-down’ economics. 

You are the appointed leader. Although the wider membership preferred Anthony Albanese, seeing him as a dyed-in-the-wool Labor man who performs so well in parliamentary debates and public speeches, your colleagues preferred you. So it has fallen to you to resuscitate Labor. You can be assured that this is what Labor supporters desperately want. They will support you as you restore Labor to its proper place in the political spectrum. 

Your task is difficult. You need all the encouragement and help you can get, and you need it from all Labor supporters. The purpose of this letter is to offer that support, and to offer some observations and advice from one who cares deeply about what progressive parties stand for. In Australia, Labor is such a party. The conservatives do not share Labor values. Although the Greens share many Labor values, they are too radical, too uncompromising, and too inflexible in their policies and politics. 

For me, it is Labor. 

Over to you! We have great expectations; we trust you are equal to the task. Help us help you to achieve Labor’s great potential as a force for good in this nation.

Yours sincerely

Letter to Bill Shorten: Part 1

There must be many ardent Labor supporters who would wish to transmit their thoughts to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten about how Labor ought to proceed over the coming months. Ad Astra is one such supporter. Here is a letter he sent to Mr Shorten.

The Hon Bill Shorten, MP Leader of the Federal Opposition

Dear Mr Shorten

I do hope you will find the time to read through this rather lengthy letter from a devoted Labor supporter who embraces the ideals, philosophy, and values of Labor as a progressive political party. I believe it echoes the strongly held views of many Labor supporters. It is written after the disclosure of the findings of the Commission of Audit, but before the Budget.

I believe in fairness and equality for all Australians: equal opportunity in education, universal health, aged and disability care, satisfying employment and income security in a prosperous economy that values environmental sustainability, supported by a safety net for the disadvantaged. I believe in the common good. Thus Labor is my first choice for government.

My background is in family medicine, first as a rural family doctor, then as an educator and administrator. On retirement in 2007, I developed a political website, The Political Sword, which you will see is a pro-Labor site.

It was a great disappointment to me, and to most of the blogsite’s commenters, that Labor lost the 2013 federal election and several State elections before and since. Labor’s recent very poor showing at the re-run of the WA Senate election has enlivened many senior Labor figures, who are now publicly stating that Labor must make radical changes to its organisation and modus operandi if it is to prosper as a political party and offer itself as the alternative government. You have signalled that substantial changes are needed, and specifically you have mentioned loosening ties with the union movement and opening up membership.

Also, Labor must present its message much more credibly, much more coherently, much more convincingly.

With the Abbott Government performing poorly in so many ways, it ought to be possible for Labor to make tactical gains by highlighting the missteps, the lies, the deception, the errors, and the downside to LNP policy decisions and their implementation. Yet, this in itself will not suffice. Labor must present to the public alternative and more appealing policies. So far Labor has failed to do this effectively.

What follows is my assessment of some of the problems that confront Labor, and how they might be addressed.


There is no disagreement that the Labor Party needs more rank and file members. I was astonished to learn that union membership is a prerequisite for working people to gain membership. As less than one in five workers belong to a union, four in five are excluded by this rule. Part of your efforts to ‘disconnect’ from unions ought to be the removal of that rule. While unions remain important in protecting workers’ rights, to assign to them such authority over party membership is now quite inappropriate.

Moreover, Labor needs to actively encourage everyone who embraces Labor values to join. Some time ago I expressed interest in joining the Party in response to a general invitation. But it led nowhere. After a substantial wait, I received an email suggesting that I should contact the local branch. I do not want to attend local Party meetings, although I acknowledge local activities are important. I want to participate via other mechanisms.

I was delighted to learn recently of your intention to reshape and increase membership.

Recommendation: That urgent steps are taken to remove the requirement that union membership is a pre-requisite for Labor Party membership, that membership be open to anyone who endorses Labor values, policies and programs, and that membership be available other than through branch membership, perhaps through a ‘general membership’ category.

Having contributed to political debate via my blogsite for five years, I would prefer to contribute to Labor via direct communication, emails, the Internet, social media, or its equivalent within the Labor organisation. It ought to be possible for the Party to initiate a series of online forums that address individual policy areas, as well as others that focus on the interaction between policy areas, recognising that policy making is dynamic, complex and interactive. Members would then have a chance to express views about policies, ask questions, highlight potential problems, and make suggestions for improvement. Responses could be restricted to members by way of a ‘sign-in’ process. For some matters, throwing them open to community discussion would be appropriate. While acknowledging the value of face-to-face discussions with the cut and thrust that they involve, soliciting opinion online could be a valuable adjunct. Although I am an ardent Labor supporter, I feel an outsider, isolated from mainstream Labor thinking and debate, unable to contribute in any way.

Organisations such as GetUp come closer to engaging people than Labor has done. Without the intelligence, ideas, questions and solutions that members of the public could offer, Labor has only its inner circle to rely upon. Whilst acknowledging the wisdom and knowledge of the inner circle, it can never be a repository for all the ideas, wisdom and solutions that are possible.

Recommendation: That a series of online forums be set up to address policy areas, and publicised to members and to the general community where appropriate, and that input be vigorously solicited.

Union affiliation

This is a vexed contemporary issue. Since Labor depends heavily on union donations and support, and rightly wishes to continue to associate with those who protect workers’ rights and welfare, disaffiliation seems inappropriate. The optics of this relationship governs the way in which the electorate regards Labor. There seems to be a growing unease, even among Labor supporters, that unions have too much influence, too much control over the parliamentary Party, and that the Party is too reliant on financial support from unions. What seems to be needed is more distance between supportive unions and the parliamentary Labor Party, and less influence of unions at Party conferences. Guy Rundle argues that it is the unions that should ‘divorce’ Labor, since, as he asserts, the Party has become too ‘pro-market’, even neoliberal, thereby distancing itself from the central role of unions – to care for and protect workers.

It is a complex relationship that cannot be easily unravelled, but steadily distancing Labor from unions seems to be in the Party’s best interests. As a past union leader, you have intimate knowledge of the relationship, and a stake in it. You are better placed than most to bring about a new relationship that loosens the Gordian knot. To those of us who stand outside the relationship, this now seems both essential and urgent. It is gratifying that you too are now expressing similar sentiments.

Recommendation: That the Labor Party–union movement relationship be examined without delay, with a view to establishing a symbiotic state of affairs that removes the contemporary dependence and ‘control’ of unions over the parliamentary party, especially at Labor conferences.


Even casual observers of politics in this country would be aware of the oppressively powerful influence of factions in decision-making. While factions exist in most parties, they are grotesquely obvious in the Labor Party. They result in decisions that reflect power structures and personal ambition, to the detriment of the Party as a whole. There is no more flagrant example than the recent nomination of Joe Bullock to first place on the WA Senate ticket that pushed Louise Pratt, whom many Labor supporters believed was the best candidate, into the second spot. This was a classic example of what has happened far too often in Labor circles. Those well connected to the most dominant factions, the most powerful, the most influential, those with a sense of entitlement to prominent positions, and in this case certain election, have overridden what is best for the Party and the nation, and what is fairest. This episode has inflicted untold damage on Labor in the West and elsewhere.

The membership must have a greater say in the pre-selection of candidates, and the factions less.

Less recently, but burned into the electorate’s memory, is the dismissal of Kevin Rudd as PM, and his reinstatement after the dismissal of PM Julia Gillard. Those events, born of factional infighting, created the image of a party in disarray, torn apart by warring powerbrokers. While rationalists can advance cogent reasons for each event, the public by and large seems to care little about the reasons, noting only the dissent, the chaos and the disharmony, and therefore mark Labor down as being incapable of governing when it seems to be unable to govern itself. And they do this despite the outstanding legislative work done by Labor in the last six years, most notably its world standard response to the GFC.

Recommendations: That Party officials seriously examine the detrimental influence of factionalism on the Party and its electoral prospects, and radically reduce the harmful aspects of factionalism, while retaining the useful.

That the Party membership be given a prominent role in the pre-selection of candidates for the House and Senate.

It is recognised that this will be difficult because of the almost overwhelming tendency for self-interest to trump the common good, but unless some drastic changes are made and publicised widely, the Party will languish and remain a diminished force in Australian politics. The nation needs a progressive party that values fairness, equality and the common weal. Labor is that party.


It is unnecessary to underscore the destructive effects of corruption on the Party and its electoral prospects. It is often associated with factionalism. NSW Labor has demonstrated this for all to see. It is unnecessary to labour this reality. Perhaps more than any other in the Party, the highly respected and admired John Faulkner has pointed this out, over and again. He has proposed changes to the rules of the NSW branch of the Labor Party. They seem eminently wise.

Recommendation: That John Faulkner’s proposed amendments to the rules of NSW Labor be fully supported, and that these changes be applied throughout the Labor organisation.

Let me now turn from organisational matters to policy issues.

The economy

It has become almost a mantra that a strong and growing economy is necessary to support the type of Australia in which most wish to live. Whilst there is a powerful element of truth in this, Labor seems to have adopted the mantra as a verity, so much so that now its utterances too often resemble those of neoliberal free-marketeers. This type of talk needs to be tempered, lest the electorate begins to believe that Labor is no more than a pale reflection of conservative belief and action. According to opinion polls, Labor is less competent at economic management than the Coalition, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Unless Labor can distinguish itself from the Coalition by demonstrating that its quest for economic strength is for the purpose of providing jobs, prosperity and support for all Australians, not just the corporate elite, it will be seen simply as just ‘Coalition-lite’. The LNP must not be allowed to assume the mantle of savior of the economy – an economy that it deceptively insists has been wrecked by Labor.

Fairness, equality, concern for the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and the disabled, must be woven into the push for economic strength. It is this balance that ought to distinguish Labor from the LNP, which since its election has shown its ruthless ‘winners and losers’ and ‘winners take all’ approach, and its ‘survival of the fittest’ and to hell with the rest, method of governing.

Labor must be as prepared as the Coalition to tackle the structural imbalances in the federal budget. It is no more than grotesque political spin to suggest that we have a ‘budget emergency’, but we do have structural problems that date a long way back. Negative gearing is one that must be addressed. The Howard/Costello handouts: tax cuts and middle class welfare when there was a revenue tsunami during the mining boom, must be revisited. Labor’s much needed reforms in education, health and disability care, and its productivity-boosting NBN infrastructure, need a sound and completely developed plan to fund these initiatives in the medium and long term. Payments to pensioners will place an increasing strain on the budget, one that would be ameliorated by improvement to superannuation, a superior solution to the harsh recommendations of the Commission of Audit.

Labor needs also to tackle the revenue side of the budget. It must not retreat from a sensible debate about GST, and certainly should avoid the temptation to make political capital out of any suggested change.

Recommendation: That Labor clarifies its economic policies, shows that growth should be balanced against the pursuit of the common good, that raising increased revenue is essential, and then fashions easily understood, appealing, and memorable messages to inform the electorate.

Global Warming

There is no point in arguing the case supporting the existence and extent of anthropogenic global warming. The facts speak for themselves.

Labor has oscillated between triumph and tragedy on this issue. Triumph when Kevin Rudd labelled it “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time” and commissioned Ross Garnaut to produce a report; triumph when he negotiated an ETS with Malcolm Turnbull; tragedy when Tony Abbott overturned Turnbull and set back that initiative; tragedy when Rudd lost his nerve and retreated from his plan, scared of going to a double dissolution; triumph when Julia Gillard insisted she would put a price on carbon; tragedy when she uttered those fateful words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead” and the media persistently failed to acknowledge the rest of her sentence; tragedy when Coalition strategists seized upon the word ‘tax’ and created its ‘Axe the Tax’ mantra, one that Labor seemed incapable of countering. Never did we see Labor punch back with ‘Save the Planet – Stop Pollution - Tax the Polluters’, a slogan that is even more appropriate to use right now. Instead we still see supine acceptance of the Coalition’s framing of this issue. Labor must do better than this. It must hammer home the reason for the price of carbon – to reduce pollution, to slow global warming, to save the planet from its devastating effects.

In this and other issues, Labor has not been able to reframe the debate in its favour. It must do this urgently.

Since placing a price on carbon is now being shown to be effective in reducing pollution as well as in generating revenue, I urge you to stick with Labor’s original intent – a price on carbon leading to an ETS – and to vote against the Coalition’s nonsensical Direct Action Plan that economists and environmentalists ridicule as inept – a sham masquerading as effective action. It would be shameful in the extreme to retreat from Labor’s original proposition that a price on carbon and an ETS is the best way of reducing carbon pollution and slowing global warming.

Recommendation: That Labor reinforce its approach to global warming by returning to its initial plan, and vigorously pursue it in the face of opposition from the LNP and vested interests, whose self-centered and ineffectual approach will bring disaster to us all, and will accelerate the deterioration that threatens the planet.

That Labor’s leaders reinvigorate Labor’s media unit with people who can at least match the Coalition in framing the global warming debate. Unless this occurs, the LNP will continue to call the shots, control the media discourse, and leave Labor wallowing in its wake.

There is more to come. You will be able to read the second part of the letter to Bill Shorten next Sunday.

The wonderful world of economic rationalists

The world of the economic rationalists took hold in politics in the 1980s. Their approach, which was discussed in ‘The rise and fall of a shibboleth’, has moulded the world for the past 30 years. Government decisions regarding national economies have been guided by it. International bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD have followed its tenets. In Australia the Productivity Commission and the Grants Commission have been influenced by it. 

With that pervasive influence, what has economic rationalism actually achieved?

When it was accepted in the 1980s, it was seen as an answer to ‘stagflation’, which had dominated a large part of the 1970s. ‘Stagflation’ was a period of high inflation despite falling or very slow economic growth; it wasn’t really supposed to happen under the predominant economic models of the time. High inflation was usually thought to be a problem resulting from an economy ‘overheating’ (growing too fast), not from when it wasn’t growing at all.

Economic rationalism may have been the answer to stagflation, but it has not stopped the usual market problems. There was a recession in the late 1980s followed by ‘the jobless recovery’ of the early 1990s; then the ‘tech bubble’ later in the 1990s, which burst in 2000; and there was the GFC in 2007–08. Australia came through the GFC better than most western nations because it briefly abandoned economic rationalism and went back to Keynesian economics, where the government steps in with spending to stimulate the economy when private sector activity has slowed. Franklin D Roosevelt had used the Keynesian approach in America during the Great Depression while, at that time, Australia had followed the Bank of England’s austerity approach. But after surviving the worst of the GFC, Australia has slipped back to economic rationalist approaches, and more so since the election of the Abbott government.

The one success that economic rationalism has had is increasing inequality in the distribution of national income. That ‘success’ has spread around the globe.

On the global scale, Oxfam pointed out before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January this year that 85 individuals between them had as much wealth as the poorest half (3.5 billion people) of the world’s population. Credit Suisse in its Global Wealth Report for 2011 stated that global wealth had risen from USD 203 trillion in January 2010 to USD 231 trillion in June 2011. It also found that there were then 29.7 million adults with household wealth greater than USD 1 million, making up less than 1% of the global population but owning 38.5% of global wealth.

In the USA, average real income increased 116% between 1945 and 2010. The share of national income going to the top 1% increased from 2.5% in 1945 to 19.8% in 2010 (which was down from 23.5% in 2007, largely as a result of the GFC). In that time, the top 0.1% increased their income by 395%. Between 1979 and 2007, the period of economic rationalism, income increased by 275% percent for the top 1% of households, 65% for the next 19%, just under 40% for the next 60% of households; and in those 28 years the income of the bottom 20% increased by only 18%.

In the UK in 1997, the entire bottom 90% of income earners had an average income of just over £10,500. The top 1% had incomes eighteen times bigger and the top 0.1% sixty times bigger. By 2007 the average income of the bottom 90% was just under £12,500 a year, but the income of the top 0.1% was then ninety-five times larger, averaging well over £1m a year.

In Canada, the real median income has barely moved since the 1980s, although in the 1950s and 1960s it was growing fast enough to double every 20 years. In the same time, the top-earning 1% of Canadians have increased their share of national income from 7.7% to 13.8%. In the 1970s the average CEO was earning about twenty-five times the average worker’s wage and in 2010 that had become almost two hundred and fifty times.

In Australia the top 10% of taxpayers had 34.6% of total national income in 1941 — it has not been as high since, but the top tax rate was also much higher then. It fell to 25% between 1974 and 1985 but has since grown again to 31% in 2010. For the top 1% their share was 10.8% in 1941, fell to about 4.5% between 1976 and 1984 and in 2010 was 9.2% (after reaching a peak of 10.1% in 2006 before the GFC).

Recently the ACTU also commissioned a report using another classical economic means of considering inequality — the difference between the labour and profit shares of national income. In the 1990s there was stability between productivity and wages; both productivity and real wages grew at 2.1% each year:

Wages decoupled from productivity in the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2012, productivity rose by an average 1.3% per year, while real hourly labour income rose by only 0.6% per year on average. This meant that labour’s share of national income fell over the decade, and fell quite sharply. In 2000, the labour share was 65.6% — this had fallen to 59.7% by 2012.

Again, this is a global phenomenon:

In developed countries, the share of labour income declined, falling by 5 percentage points or more between 1980 and 2006-07 — just before the global financial crisis — in Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, and by 10 points or more in Austria, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Portugal.

All these measurements are reinforced by the Gini coefficient which has increased in most developed nations since the 1980s. The OECD suggests that France, Belgium and Hungary have managed to maintain their Gini coefficient at about the same level (no increase or decrease in inequality), Turkey and Greece actually managed to reduce inequality, but in all other OECD countries the coefficient has risen, indicating increased income inequality. Out of the 34 nations in the OECD, on a ranking from least to most unequal, Australia ranked twenty-sixth, Canada twenty-fourth, the UK twenty-eighth, and the USA thirty-first. Slovenia ranked highest with the lowest level of inequality, a Gini coefficient of only 0.24, and Chile the worst with 0.49. The US Gini coefficient has risen from 0.39 in 1968 to 0.48 in 2012.

You will see many different Gini coefficient figures because different researchers use differently defined incomes as their starting point — gross, disposable (gross income less taxes) or final income (disposable income plus government transfers). For example, the Productivity Commission found in Australia that, measured by the Gini coefficient, inequality in household income in 2009–10 was 0.426 for gross income, 0.389 for disposable income, and 0.341 for final income. These figures suggest that tax scales and government transfers in Australia do have some impact on inequality, although not stopping it rising over time.

Whichever figures are used, there is little doubt that inequality has increased due primarily to rapid increases in income for the top 1% and, to a lesser extent, the top 10%. The bottom groups have not missed out completely but have been getting a smaller share of the increasing wealth in most nations.

There are other factors, aside from labour income, that contribute to income inequality. A significant one for the top 10%, and particularly the top 1%, has been a large increase in ‘capital and other’ income. The extent of part-time and casual work also has an influence by providing lower labour income. The OECD has suggested that more balanced policy approaches between temporary and permanent employment is one measure to help address inequality.

Another contributing phenomenon in America (and it would be interesting to see if it applies in Australia), has been the loss of middle-ranking jobs, largely due to the automation of routine tasks, not only for manual labour (classified as routine manual work) but by the computerisation of office, sales and administrative work (classified as routine cognitive work). There has been an increase in the number of jobs for non-routine work, both cognitive and manual. The former (cognitive) requires high levels of education and generally commands higher wages, but the latter (manual) involves work such as cleaning, food services, security services, home help, and so on. This is leading to a polarisation of the workforce in America, with more high-paid jobs, more low-paid jobs, and fewer in the middle.

Why are governments, world-wide, still listening to the economic rationalists when it is clear that rising inequality is their greatest achievement?

Government decisions are critical to what happens regarding inequality.

The decisions governments have made, however, since the 1980s, largely at the behest of the economic rationalists, have actually worsened inequality: for example, decisions taken by many western governments to reduce taxes for the wealthy, the argument being that this stimulates growth for the benefit of all. A paper prepared by the US Congressional Research Service, however, found that since 1945 reductions in the top tax rate (from 90% to 35%) in America ‘appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution’. The paper found no correlation between lower top marginal tax rates and saving, investment or productivity. (As an interesting sidenote, this report was initially released in September 2012 but was then withdrawn at the insistence of Senate Republicans before being updated and re-released in 2013 with no substantive changes.)

So despite continuing talk about the need for lower tax rates to encourage economic growth, it appears this is, in Australian parlance, ‘a furphy’. It has achieved nothing other than to increase income inequality.

And, Tom Conley of Griffith University suggests that governments have actually abandoned the goal of greater equality:

Governments could still ameliorate the negative impacts of market outcomes but, in recent years, they seem increasingly less willing to do so, often arguing that such efforts will impede the growth process.

A different approach is taken by economist James Kenneth Galbraith, son of the more well-known, John Kenneth Galbraith. In his work Inequality and Instability Galbraith argues that economic and social instability is not a result of inequality but:

… rather, inequality is a symptom of the shaky and, in the end, unsustainable foundations of an economy lurching from crash to crash as it maintains a reliance on credit-fuelled stock or asset bubbles that provide massive rewards to select few …

Galbraith and others have pointed out that the levels of inequality in America before the GFC were near the levels before the Great Depression, reinforcing the idea that inequality is, indeed, a symptom of a poorly functioning economic system (often about to break under the strain, if those two examples hold good).

Galbraith also contends that too much attention is paid to the statistical analysis of inequality and not enough to broader social support mechanisms, such as health services, schooling, higher education, social security payments, housing programs, and so on. As government support for such programs declines, as it has generally since the rise of economic rationalists in the1980s, people feel less well-off and less secure, and inequality has more impact not only on those at the bottom of the socio-economic tree but also on the middle class.

Inequality has usually been offset by progressive taxation scales and government transfers, although the OECD argues that ‘government transfers and taxes alone would be neither effective nor financially sustainable’. But it does suggest the need for greater investment in on-the-job training and formal education over the working life as a means of maximising participation in the workforce, and thereby incomes.

Between the Galbraith approach and the suggestions of the OECD, there does appear a way forward, a way to reverse this trend towards greater inequality, and governments need to address these issues:

  • the broader social mechanisms that support families and households, including social security payments
  • the impact of casual and part-time work on livelihoods, on equality and poverty
  • the reintroduction of genuinely progressive tax scales
  • measures of well-being (as discussed in a previous post, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’).
If such measures are adopted, there is more likelihood that greater equality in income distribution will follow.

But, based on the evidence, the one really big step governments can take to reverse rising inequality is to abandon economic rationalism.

What do you think?

The rise and fall of a shibboleth

Firstly I must acknowledge that the title of this article was inspired by the words of the 1994 song ‘Shibboleth’ by Melbourne band, The Killjoys.

In this case, the shibboleth I am referring to is ‘economic rationalism’, an expression that distinguishes the Right from the Left of politics. I also use ‘shibboleth’ with one of its more modern meanings: that it signifies something where meaning has been lost, and now serves merely to identify allegiance. I choose this meaning deliberately because I do believe that economic rationalism is on the wane. Its death may take some time, perhaps ten years or so, but I perceive that changes are coming.

In researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that the term ‘economic rationalism’ is mainly used in Australia: overseas the more common terminology is ‘market liberalism’. Whatever its name its essential premise is the same — markets rule! Economic rationalists believe that market forces will always produce better outcomes than government or bureaucratic decisions, that it is the market that should determine what to produce and how to produce it.

Some economic rationalists accept that there is a role for government in providing public goods and in intervening when there is market failure. Others, however, consider market failures as unimportant or self-correcting and that, in any case, ‘the costs of government intervention [are] greater than the costs of the market imperfections government policies [are] supposed to remedy.’

They assume that a free market system has an inherent tendency towards equilibrium in which demand and supply are in balance:

Movement towards equilibrium is brought about by changes in relative prices. (Prices include not just the prices of goods and services but wages and interest rates.) If there is persistent unemployment, then that is believed to be caused primarily by institutions (trade union pressure, minimum wage legislation, and so on) which prevent the price of labour — wages — from moving to a level in which the demand and supply of labour is brought into balance and full employment achieved.

Economic rationalists also consider low inflation is vital for a deregulated financial sector and for business. One cost of maintaining low inflation can be increasing unemployment. In Australia, before economic rationalism, ‘full employment’ was often seen as having an unemployment level of about 2% (which was achieved in the 1960s until the mid-1970s). Since the 1980s, a level of about 5% has become acceptable.

The economic rationalists tend not to be overly concerned about the distribution of income. In 1997 J W Neville explained:

While some economic rationalists argue that unequal income distribution is important to create the right incentives, generally in Australia economic rationalists say little explicitly about income distribution … they tend not to comment on the role of social security or the social wage, and hence on the final pattern of income distribution, except perhaps to leave a vague impression that social security will take care of those whom market forces leave living in poverty.

On the distribution of income, Milton Friedman, one of the founders of economic rationalism, wrote in 1962:

The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, “to each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.”

From this, Friedman sees a primary function of the state as maintaining property rights, both physical and intellectual, and leaving the markets to get on with the job of using those property rights.

Another figure in economic rationalism is the late Friederich Hayek, important not only for his economic works, but also for The Road to Serfdom. In that work his basic argument was that government control of our economic lives amounts to totalitarianism. ‘Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest,’ he wrote, ‘it is the control of the means for all our ends.’

The earlier quote from Milton Friedman comes from his Capitalism and Freedom. It is this emphasis on freedom, as economic rationalists see it, that gives economic rationalism a non-economic dimension. Despite what its proponents may claim, it has profound social, not just economic, implications.

It has developed, and been taken on board politically, not simply as an economic approach but as a whole social philosophy based on old-style libertarianism, opposed to any form of government interference in markets and people’s lives — what it perceives as ‘socialism’.

It has also arisen from a long history in which happiness was removed from economics. A chapter in the World Happiness Report 2013 provides a potted history of this change: from the Greek philosophers and early Christian church’s view that happiness was achieved by being virtuous, to the economic theory of ‘utility’ in which individualism and consumerism prevailed. The early economic theorists brought material goods into the happiness equation, suggesting that people purchased that which brought them pleasure or happiness. In the twentieth century economics came to be dominated by mathematical formulae, and the question of whether market consumption could increase happiness and well-being was no longer a consideration.

Economic rationalism rose to prominence in politics in the 1980s, being adopted by the Thatcher and Reagan governments after the economic problems of the 1970s (as discussed in my earlier posts, ‘Whither the Left’). It was occurring at a time when socialism as a political and economic system was fading: glasnost was introduced in the Soviet Union from 1985; Poland had unrest from the early 1980s and voted in its own government in 1990; the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and German reunification took place in 1990; and the Soviet Union fell and broke up in 1991. The politico-philosophical basis to question economic rationalism was itself in turmoil and economic rationalism rose with little philosophical opposition. By the early 1990s few socialist governments were left and economic rationalism was entrenched.

So entrenched has it become that markets are now often seen as the answer to social and environmental problems. Many, not just economic rationalists, now argue that protecting the environment requires putting a market value on it, no longer accepting that governments have a duty to respond and, if necessary, work towards changes in behaviour — no, that would distort the markets. Need more child care? — privatise it and allow the market to determine demand, supply and price. Need more jobs? — sorry, any government action will distort the markets but support the markets and the jobs will come (at the market’s price!).

Another sign of the entrenchment of economic rationalism is how the idea of ‘capitals’ has also permeated social thinking. Now people talk about ‘human capital’ and ‘social capital’ as though these are merely commodities that can add to economic production. Its lack of reference to values in the market, as opposed to its libertarian social thinking, may be its undoing. As Jeffrey D Sachs wrote in the World Happiness Report:

A prosperous market economy depends on moral ballast for several fundamental reasons. There must be enough social cooperation to provide public goods. There must be enough honesty to underpin a stable financial system. There must be enough attention paid to future generations to attend responsibly to the natural resource base. There must be enough regard for the poor to meet basic needs and protect social and political stability. [emphasis added]

In my piece, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’ I discussed alternative economic and social progress measurements to GDP, such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Social Progress Index (SPI). What I found fascinating in researching that piece was that those indexes have flat-lined since the late 1970s. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

The FISH and GPI, and even subjective surveys of ‘life satisfaction’ in the UK, appear to have increased throughout the early 1970s but from the late 1970s/early 1980s have barely moved and, in some cases, have fallen slightly. Applying the Gini coefficient to those times provides a similar result in many countries, particularly developed nations. From World War II to the 1970s there were improvements in wealth distribution (lessening inequality) but this began to reverse from the 1980s.

Guess what happened in the 1980s? No prize really for answering: ‘economic rationalism’.

The economic rationalists argue that ‘trickle down’ economics means that increasing wealth and free markets do improve life for those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale: they earn more money; they have more benefits from new consumer products to make life easier. Yes, that is true if you take WWII or 1850 as your starting point, but it takes no account of the relative benefits that are gained by different segments of the population as national wealth increases. The economic rationalists ignore that at their peril.

As discussed at the World Economic Forum in January 2014, increasing inequality can lead to increasing social unrest and then the economic rationalists’ belief in markets will be meaningless. Who will then seek government intervention to quell social upheavals? Perhaps they should be told the markets can take care of it!

The other aspects I discussed in ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’ are also relevant here and are what gives me optimism that economic rationalism will falter in the coming years.

The fact that social well-being and life satisfaction have not improved since the 1970s, despite rising GPD, is leading to greater pressure for new measurements of progress to be adopted. Some of those are still market-based, in the sense that they take account of the real costs of production, including damage to the environment, but some are based on social well-being and life satisfaction or happiness.

Any move away from GDP as a measure of economic progress will impact the influence of economic rationalists. Improving social well-being is not something that can be solely achieved by the markets, particularly using the value-free models of economics or the libertarian approach. If these other indexes assume growing importance, as I think they will, there will be more pressure on governments to intervene and take active measures.

If governments start responding to social well-being indexes and levels of inequality they will be overriding pure market outcomes. The economic rationalists will argue that some of the problems can be addressed by social security payments but not by progressive taxation scales: that will not hold water, however, when the evidence of the new indicators comes into the public arena. When the costs of damage to the environment and the depletion of natural resources are factored into economic growth, more people will understand that our so-called economic success was not as successful as they had been led to believe and that it has come at a cost for future generations. More and more evidence will be available that questions the outcomes from a pure, market-driven approach and the economic rationalists will be seen for what they are: ideologues who may be ‘rationalists’, but who are not necessarily rational.

Despite what economic rationalists like to think, governments do take account of social values in their decision making — otherwise they would never be elected — and that will flow over into decisions affecting their beloved market. Then, the shibboleth of economic rationalism will be just that, an old expression identifying those few who refused to move with the times.

What do you think?

Red red wine

It’s not news to anyone that Barry O’Farrell resigned as New South Wales Premier after giving ICAC (the New South Wales anti-corruption body) misleading information over a bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange he received as a gift from Nick Di Girolamo, a person associated with a Sydney Water contractor — Australian Water Holdings (AWH).

There are two current enquiries by ICAC set up to investigate the allegations of corruption as well as solicitation, receiving and concealing payments in relation to public officials in NSW.

Opinions vary on whether O’Farrell did the right thing by resigning and there has been plenty of discussion in other places without repeating it here. Mike Carlton in the SMH was probably one of the best with an offering that commenced with:

Tasting Notes: The 1959 Chateau d'icac.

Celebrated vigneron Nick Di Girolamo has excelled himself with this rare and striking Premier Grand Cru. Selected from old grapes of wrath vines at the Obeid family's Mt Corruption vineyard in NSW and cellared in Rum Corps oak casks, the wine reveals hidden gifts of subtle complexity.

The brown nose offers a concentrated aroma of decaying cattle dung, complexed by persistent spice notes of rotten fish and more than a hint of unsavoury greased palm. An intense palate of bitter fruits displays weak backbone and piss-in-pocket acidity, with a lingering after-palate heightened by a signed "thank you" note of unmistakable provenance.

A wine not to be forgotten.

He then goes on to discuss Barry O’Farrell’s political career and where he went wrong, namely:

O'Farrell's true fault was his failure to keep his promise to root out the endemic corruption of the NSW Liberals. He baulked at bold political reform.

On top of that, a federal government minister has stated to the same enquiry that he didn’t see a problem with working for AWH for somewhere between 25 and 45 hours a year for a salary of $200,000. Senator Arthur Sinodinos, the minister in question, also disclaimed all knowledge of a $75,000 donation to the Liberal Party while he was a director of AWH and also treasurer of the Liberal Party.

Business Review Weekly relates the history of Australian Water Holdings from an inauspicious non-profit holding company to its ‘modernisation’ as a for-profit company — due to a badly written contract between the firm and Sydney Water, it planned to obtain a major contract without having to tender. Direct lobbying of ministers was part of the plan, so as to bypass Sydney Water processes in gaining the contract.

Most accounts of this affair so far suggest that Barry O’Farrell is a decent person and was concerned with the influence of corrupt public officials in NSW. David Marr, writing in The Guardian suggests:

But under O’Farrell Icac showed the deeply ingrained corruption of NSW didn’t begin and end with Labor. His own side was punished. Now the Liberals have taken the biggest hit of all.

There is a larger issue here. Since when is a bottle of wine estimated to cost $3,000 such a ‘routine’ occurrence that one would forget entirely to declare it at the time and completely forget about it when questioned by an anti-corruption body?

Lets face it, $3,000 is a lot of money for most people. While most Australians have heard of Penfolds Grange, very few would routinely go to the local bottle shop and purchase some from the year of their birth, if at all.

When the former assistant treasurer of Australia attempts to make a joke about travelling time when asked if $200,000 is reasonable compensation for 25 to 45 hours work in a year, it demonstrates the lack of understanding Senator Sinodinos has with the concept of living on or under the average Australian wage which is currently $1483.50 per week: that would allow the purchase of a single 1959 Grange bottle every three weeks or so, after allowing for tax and superannuation deductions.

Some might consider Senator Sinodinos to have been underpaid for the ‘influence’ he could muster for his employer. That is the real issue here. These politicians are perceived as being able to influence the actions of government and government entities so that firms are, firstly, comfortable employing them as lobbyists to identify ‘key stakeholders’ so as to influence decisions and, secondly, paying sums that are beyond the comprehension of most Australians to the identified stakeholders.

Barry O’Farrell is not the only one who has ‘fallen on his sword’ in the past 30 or so years for neglecting to declare a gift that could be construed as excessive.

From the Liberals’ Michael MacKellar’s false declaration that a television was a black and white model, rather than a colour model, to save on import duty in 1982, through the ALP’s Mick Young who failed to declare a Paddington Bear in 1984, with a brief detour to Queensland’s ‘moonlight state’ era in the 80’s and 90’s, Australian politicians have a long and infamous history of either believing they have an entitlement greater than that of the ‘mug punter’ who elects them or are so gullible they can’t see the compromises that accepting the gift or excessive salary implies they will make.

The Federal Finance Department publishes the value of ‘entitlements’ given to former politicians on their website. A link to the relevant page is here for the period 1 January 2013 until 30 June 2013. Other periods are also available from the website.

Politicians seem to believe that they have an entitlement greater than you or I. Otherwise why have they allowed themselves to be able to claim travel, communications costs and so on after they leave office? — and in some cases tens of thousands of dollars in a six month period.

According to the listing above, the taxpayer funds travel expenses for politicians who, in some cases, were voted out of office decades ago. In the case of former prime ministers some leeway is understandable as some groups that had dealings with the person while they were in power may need to finish up official business — it is hardly likely to be a requirement of the job even five years later, let alone 30 years. There is also an argument that politicians are ‘on call’ 24 hours a day — well, so are church ministers, doctors and a considerable number of people who work in essential or health care environments. In most other cases, part of the wage that the worker is paid is attributable to the ‘on call’ requirement rather than having the ability to gain some benefit from a former employer decades later.

Another variation, and the final example, of this sense of entitlement is shown in a Bruce Hawker article on The Guardian’s website:

After last week's controversy which led to the resignation of Barry O'Farrell, we started hearing complaints and calls from the Coalition for the corruption watchdog's powers to be reduced. This is not new: it happened very early in Icac's life.

ICAC’s first investigation was in 1990 when a number of Liberal and ALP State Members of Parliament were investigated and found to be creating a ‘climate conducive to corruption’ in relation to some land dealings in the north of the State. The Liberal and National Parties who were in Government at the time —

… launched a broadside against the body they had helped establish just a year before. As chief of staff to then opposition leader Bob Carr, I [Bruce Hawker] watched with a mix of bemusement and amusement as they fulminated, like Dr Frankenstein, against the monster who was meant to destroy Labor, not their own.

It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Brisbane Times reported in October 2012:

The [Queensland] state government has announced a review of the legislation which governs the crime and corruption watchdog claiming it has been used as a ‘‘political football’’.

Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said the review — to be headed up by a former High Court judge and university professor — of the Crime and Misconduct Act 2001 would focus on allowing the watchdog to do its job without ‘‘being drawn into political debates’’.

This review is about depoliticising the operation of the CMC

The Queensland state government in October 2012 was led by Campbell Newman who was subject to investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (Queensland’s version of ICAC), at the request of the then ALP government, during the 2012 election campaign. Ironically, Campbell Newman has been named in the current ICAC enquiries as receiving a $5000 donation to meet with people from AWH while in the role of Lord Mayor of Brisbane. His office claims that the money was returned.

In an era when people are being told they will not be able to claim a pension until they are 70, when in Queensland people are being asked to make ‘Strong Choices’ to help the state government set the budget, and the federal government is telling us we all will have to make sacrifices, how can politicians continue to claim they understand how the rest of us live when $3,000 bottles of wine, $5,000 fees for attending meetings or $200,000 salaries for under a week’s work per year are considered acceptable until the anti-corruption commission questions the motives? Are their values so warped or is there another explanation?

What do you think?

Lords and Ladies, a morality tale …

The spruiker

Lords and Ladies, I invite you on a journey into a world that is imaginable to only a few. A frightening world where nothing is what it seems. Your guide will be our jester Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. He will make you laugh. He will make you cry. You will find ecstasy in his grovelling grace. You will find despair in his jocular deeds. He will make servile all creatures and bring them before your court. Through his own halls of merriment he will lead you. From within his paper fortress he will guide you. In a maze he will leave you. Be thankful this is not your kingdom — or is it?

The jester’s tale

Outside the towers of the Lords and Ladies, the land is being enveloped by darkness. A pestilence has descended.

See the morbid peasant creatures dwelling there wailing for sustenance, crying for relief from their suffering, as Tiny-er-er O’penmouth merrily jangles past, his bells ringing from his knees and cuffs. The peasants are led off to work in the dank fields and at the smoking forges before returning to their hovels outside the castle walls. And yet there are some that run to him when they hear Tiny-er-er O’penmouth jingling past. Sometimes they believe his paper fortress will also shield them and they turn their anger away from the castle gates. Some follow his every sound, smile at his every whim — or at least feign they do. But darker figures steal away to gather in quiet corners, fingers playing tentatively over matches in their ragged coat pockets.

A fabled paper castle surrounds Tiny-er-er wherever he goes. The Lords and Ladies convinced Tiny-er-er O’penmouth it is for his protection, that the peasants can never harm him while he lives within its invisible paper walls. It is not real. The Lords and Ladies know it but don’t dare tell Tiny-er-er, nor ever let the peasants in on their secret. He flirts with the gold of the rich, plays with the fears of the peasants and belittles their world outside his hall, safe in the knowledge that his paper walls safeguard him.

Safe within his paper walls, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth revels in masquerading as a peasant, wandering the boggy roads, drifting aimlessly into their fields and … doing nothing! Just standing there as if his very presence enriches their day, hoping a passing Lord or Lady may notice him keeping their villeins contented.

A drunken vagabond staggers along the road and tumbles into the mud as Tiny-er-er catches him up. ‘Why, er, aren’t you, er, at your work?’ he demands of the fallen serf, now flailing in the mud, trying to swim away from the bizarre apparition beside him. This reduced being once made fine carriages for the Lords and Ladies before they decided better and cheaper carriages were to be had from the farthest parts of their kingdom. He slurs and gurgles his story through the wet earth filling his mouth. ‘Er, shit happens!’ Tiny-er-er answers the muddied revelations. ‘If you, er, do not work, you can, er, be a ,er, er, a knight. Yes, I, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, can, er, make you a knight.’ Tiny-er-er O’penmouth draws his dagger and annoints the head of the prostrate vagabond before deftly slashing the dagger across his breeches, laying bare his buttocks. ‘Look! Now you really have, er, the arse out of your, er, breeches! And your, er, carriages were crap,’ he sniggers while still bending over the fallen figure.

He straightens from the forlorn fallen vagabond, laughs raucously and, with gestures, entreats passers-by to join him. They look behind. They look ahead. They draw their stale breaths, then turn away as a faint titter quickly fades, before they drift on in silence. ‘Come one, come, er, all,’ he calls to them. ‘I can make you all Lords, er, Ladies. Or Lords, er, yes, Lords.’ He chortles at his own jest but the shuffling peasants do not.

One scrawny bone-drawn figure (Tiny-er-er cannot even tell if it is male or female) from the rear of that now more distant throng calls, ‘Give us food.’

Tiny-er-er’s bells ring as he bobbles with mirth. ‘You can, er, have food when you, er, work, er, yes, work.’

‘We already work,’ comes the fading shout.

‘Then, er, er, you must, er, work harder. How can our Lords and, er, Lords, er, look after you if you, er, do not work harder.’ The throng, shuffling on, shuffling away, no longer hears him.

The Lords and Ladies, with Tiny-er-er’s vainglorious consent, are selling the peasants’ farms or digging their ground in search of mythical riches, destroying their homes, making their land barren and desolate, and beseeching them to work ever harder, ever longer. In a frivolous gesture, Tiny-er-er has been known to take the bread from the hands of lonely mothers feeding their babes: ‘The Lords and Ladies need, er, this, er, this more than you’. He says it is just a joke, and it is, for lonely mothers have no bread.

The next step in Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s journey takes us to his own great hall, a vast, forbidding room in shades of green where jesters, clowns and goblins gather behind him. Sometimes they rush to make their jokes but Tiny-er-er much prefers his own. Sometimes he will run from that place for no reason — it is just his humour. Sometimes he will er, er, orate in his own, er, manner. He will make pronouncements there that please his Lords and Ladies even if they take little notice. He invites passing peasants into his hall to mill in bewilderment opposite him. The Lords and Ladies think this is good. They think it is entertaining. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth also thinks it entertaining. He rails against the peasants and goads them to rail back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes their barbs sting but no-one outside that hall shall ever know. It is Tiny-er-er’s secret place, shielded within his paper castle. The Lords and Ladies are pleased when he is there where his jesting can do no damage to them. Let him rail against the peasants for his own enjoyment, and that of those he chooses to seat behind him, for there he is in a world of his own, a basically harmless world to the Lords and Ladies, and if it keeps him amused, well, just leave him there.

Occasionally a goblin escapes from Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s hall and in its shrill, prattling manner makes declarations that even the Lords and Ladies dare not mention beyond the veil of their castle gates. That does not please the Lords and Ladies for the goblins scare the peasants and they grow restless, the matches rustling in their ragged coat pockets.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth sometimes likes to believe himself a Lord, and disappears to far parts of the kingdom, riding past peasants in a borrowed carriage, waving fleetingly as he passes. ‘Work harder!’ he exhorts them from his carriage window. The peasants do not have time to look up from their work.

He meets other Lords in these furthermost regions and tells them he is saving their world from them, er, that should be ‘for’ them — Tiny-er-er O’penmouth makes that same mistake himself. The Lords are left bemused at this jester entreating them, nay, commanding them, to do as he says. He presents a cornucopia of plans and thoughts, often no more than thoughts, to make a brighter world for Lords and Ladies, as long as that morbid mass of peasants keeps its place. His thoughts wander and change rapidly. What he says today he does not mean tomorrow but that only enhances his jests.

‘I will send you bright, er, orange boats,’ he tells a Lord who rules a land of land without water. When the Lord laughs, thinking it no more than a jester’s jest, Tiny-er-er repeats his offer. ‘I can, er, fill them, er, with peasants,’ he adds. ‘I can take your peasants and send, er, then send them back again.’ The Lord shakes his head and turns away unable to take any more of this strange stranger’s world. ‘I can, er, have the wheelrights give them, er, wheels …’ he suggests plaintively to the departing Lord before departing in his own borrowed carriage to seek out another Lord who may like his orange boats.

His visits are inevitably brief for which these distant Lords are thankful beyond measure. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth has so many jests to pass on to so many. He must return to his great hall and belittle the peasants again — he does enjoy that and it pleases the Lords and Ladies, for although the peasants in the fields and at the forges do not hear of his escapades there, he ensures the Lords and Ladies do. He will whisper his feats in quiet corners of their courtyards, leave short notes praising his own deeds in their dingy dining halls. Oh yes, he humours them. How else can a jester survive in this world of the Lords and Ladies without keeping their amusement.

But outside, fingers pluck at matches in ragged coat pockets.

Now in the peasants’ world the trees are dying, left as lifeless looming shadows over the creatures below. The peasants think they know why but Tiny-er-er O’penmouth says God has given the trees rest and they will return when they wake.

‘But what about the fires?’ a small hairy figure sitting at the base of one of those trees asks the dismissive Tiny-er-er, who replies: ‘They are lit by the bad, er, peasants, er, with matches, er, encouraged by that nasty caste of, er, tree monks.’

Like the Lords from the far regions, the figure shakes its head as it clambers nimbly high on the dead trunk and Tiny-er-er belatedly discerns the hirsute shape as a tree monk. ‘It is hard to tell, er, a tree monk these, er, days’, Tiny-er-er thinks (as even his thoughts are punctuated by ‘ers’) and ponders whether he should ask the Lords and Ladies to banish all of them. But how to recognise them? — no, it won’t matter if a few innocent peasants are banished as well. He can even use the orange boats — if he can get them back from the lands where he has sent them.

Fires ravage the dying tree trunks and return again and again — a never-ending sea of flame. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will be again tomorrow.

The rivers are also rising but do not refresh the land as once they did, instead turning the land to mud, the settling ash to a black sludge. Little will grow in that mire. The hovels are filling with water and silt.

When the Lords and Ladies demand the fruits of the fields, the milk of the herds, and the fatted calf, there is none left to bring, no peasant to bring them. The pestilence on the land and the people has all but destroyed the peasants’ world. Some have built their houses higher and wait there fearful of what may next befall them. Many have taken to the slippery sludge of the roads, seeking shelter elsewhere, anywhere but the land of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, any land that knows the fires will keep returning, that water is flooding the fields and in some unnatural way no longer receding.

Tiny-er-er’s Lords and Ladies shelter in their castles, hidden from the peasants. They feel safer there. They have faith their stone walls will not burn, that their heavy gates will keep back the water.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth still roams the desolation safe in his paper castle. There are no fires or floods there.

And outside, fingers play purposefully with the matches in ragged coat pockets.

It is extremely hot. It is extremely cold. It is a land of extremes — more extreme than it has ever been in the life of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. But the Lords and Ladies are safe inside their castle walls.

For many days not one soul has stirred from the stone fortress where the rich people live
No one came and no one went
Fear can do many strange things
And even though water ran low
Their mouths burnt and bellys caked dry
Not one person set a foot outside
No one had that much courage
For they feared the peasants and their world outside
So they played it safe and didn’t move
But one by one they perished and died*

* from ‘The Black Plague’ on Winds of Change, Eric Burdon and the (new) Animals, 1967

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 2

The impartially partisan political journalist

Part 1 of ‘Truth with partisan on the side’ ended with the suggestion that we might be in a muddle in political journalism in Australia, a muddle about ‘partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or “neutral” journalism’. If this is so, what kind of a muddle is it?

It may be a muddle about what we the people — the readers, the listeners, the ‘reliers’ on information we can’t easily track ourselves — want and need from political journalism. It may be a moral muddle about what political journalists themselves see as their role in providing what they think we (the people, the reader etc.) might need and be looking for.

It is certainly, for me, the muddle inherent in, and driven by, a long-taught practice in journalism — that the journalist should be a non-partisan presenter of facts.

In The Year My Politics Broke Jonathan Green argued that the public ‘make a pervading assumption of impartiality’ and that political journalists fail this test via ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘abrogation’ or ‘partisan journalistic activism’. One might guess, and only guess, that Green’s faith in the impartiality mantra has been strong all of his professional life.

In May 2013, well before publishing The Year My Politics Broke, Green had written ‘Journalism tainted by conviction is not journalism’. It is a short piece wholly dedicated to the impartiality theme and disdainful of anything that does not measure up to journalism ‘untainted’. And it is salutary to compare some of the words, phrases and examples Green uses to flesh out what untainted and ‘conviction’-tainted journalism are for him:

Journalism untainted Journalism tainted
… a craft, a set of trade skills that can be applied pretty universally to a range of situations a polemic…a cynical exercise in the promotion of any or various propositions
…true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour. the sort of polemic that may have limited commercial worth but enormous political purpose
… a cornerstone of smart democratic practice … cynically political purpose while claiming all the protections, rights and respectability of the fourth estate
… created with intellectual curiosity to inform Fox News … an entirely parallel universe that determines its own agenda, facts and logic according to an often bellicose political mission
… practiced with calm objectivity and simple curiosity The Australian, a paper whose political purpose and occasional flights of “truthiness” can routinely obscure its better journalistic angels
… neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. … the opinion formers of the tabloid blogosphere. Little s-bends of ill-humour like the Daily Telegraph's Tim Blair, or great vaulted Taj Mahals of polished ego like the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.
In any … worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance … produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it
Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right. What is certain is that it should not matter. the paranoid, fact defying columns of the proselytising right … where … any measured objective assessment of reality is dismissed as being 'of the left', the facts are mutable servants of argument
Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence

The ‘heartfeltness’ of Green’s sentiments can’t be denied. And not many of us reading here would contradict, I suspect, his take on the The Australian, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt.

But what niggles about the piece was captured, for me, in Paula (@dragonista) Matthewson’s response in The Myth of Objectivity, which introduced some needed subtlety:

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy ...

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand [my emphasis].

Far less subtle than Matthewson’s, of course, was a February 2014 Gerard Henderson response to, well, not just Green and his The Year My Politics Broke but Green, as an exemplar extraordinaire of ‘our ABC’, otherwise known as that appalling collective of left-y, partisan-y groupthink-y bias. Subbed with the give-away title ‘It's easy being Green when you can sneer while on the public purse’ Henderson gives himself licence to sneer away at Green:

Green seriously divides Australians between an “informed public” (that is, people like him) and “a great mass of people” who are “wilfully misinformed” (that is, people not at all like him). Green wants “gatekeepers” like himself to shape “informed decision making” in a green/left kind of way.

Whenever commenting on journalism as practice Green clearly argues for impartiality and objectivity, considers himself impartial and, further, that his personal political stances are, and should be, private. Consequently, he believes they just don’t show.

Matthewson argues from the opposite position and for the inevitable subtle evidence in everything a journalist writes, of belief, conviction even, by virtue of the individual journalist having almost sole power to choose the content of any story and shape its telling so absolutely. In the light of this, look again at Green; at, say, his policy-change suggestions to the Labor Opposition in ‘Where is the alternative to Manus Island cruelty?

And Henderson would never consider anything Green says or writes as impartial, but not for any of the reasons Green puts forward against ‘tainted’ journalism. In the ‘conviction’ piece, Green is trying out a philosophy, if you like, of impartiality. Matthewson teases out some complexity. Henderson just plays the man (or lots of them in this piece) to snipe at the ABC in News Corp’s ever more savage way for its failure to provide ‘balance’ or ‘equal time’ to so-called left and right.

No-one, of course, can rip the balance myth (as antidote to the dreaded evil of bias) a better one than David Horton did in, for example, his open letter to ABC CEO Mark Scott:

I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

Or here again in ‘Steering the ABC Titanic’:

I am suggesting that the obvious sources of bias be removed. That experts once again replace ideologues, that news bulletins contain, well, simply news.

For Horton, the ABC’s over-striving after ‘false’ balance (or false equivalence) to placate its critics from conservative camps leads to presenting non-fact as if it had the same weight as fact; and for Horton, this way the mad obsession with avoiding bias truly lies. For Green, pure bias is the personally prejudiced, politically purposed, paralysingly paranoid, polemical propaganda journalism of a Bolt or a Blair (amongst others). For Henderson, bias is Green’s wicked adherence to, for example, those ‘catastrophic’ issues loved by lefty greenie progressives such as anthropogenic causes for a changing climate.

But the Henderson view on bias and the never-ending drama about the ABC’s journalistic ‘balance’ are little more than ‘look over there’ or ‘ooh, shiny thing’ tactics from the naysayers and the no see-ers whom both Green and Horton so rightfully excoriate. Such views offer no help to moving us from adversarial charges that conviction is partisan in a ‘bad’ way, is bias, is propaganda, to something else — perhaps something like recognising that owning and stating your position may be offering some first steps in reviving trust in the integrity of political journalism?

In a recent piece, ‘Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics’, Gay Alcorn lamented:

… we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter. But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.

Andrew Elder responded:

When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but …When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair. [my emphasis]

Despair as media cop-out, really. Elder goes on to suggest that the media, more than the politicians and the political system, needs faith in evidence and correctives in the way it reports politics, or journalists like Alcorn are already out of a job. He adds: ‘If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it.’

Speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 Jay Rosen drew on, as a springboard for some of his ideas on how to change or rescue ‘political coverage’, a 2008 essay, ‘The power of the pen: A call for journalistic courage’, by Walter Pinkus that set out the Pinkus approach to how to ‘fix’ political coverage. Pinkus, from fifty years of practice in the business, had reminded his profession of their origins in presses begun by families who took partisan positions in their politics, but played the game with integrity nevertheless:

… they all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds. [my emphasis]

Pinkus argued that the political media participated in the political process: that the actions and decisions of the media directly affected government, making the media powerful, and thus allowing it to play ‘activist’ roles in governance. A recent development is the media’s rejection of this activist role — which he views as a ‘threat to our democracy’.

For Pinkus, courage in the political media field is ‘a journalist [who] stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities’. It isn’t eliding, omitting or denying evidence or fact. But it isn’t playing at being ‘neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate’. For Pinkus, the ‘neutral’ journalist is an unfortunate evolution away from the origins of the profession (at least in the USA) into becoming PR mouthpieces for governments.

When first picking up the Pinkus essay in 2008, Jay Rosen argued that neutrality (another word for balance) needed to be ‘uncoupled’ from fairness, which should remain a tenet of modern journalism. But more importantly, the political press needed to let its readers know what it was doing with its own power. Nothing quite as simple as letting us know who they vote for, but what evidence they could provide for claiming their position of authority in the first place.

In 2011 in Melbourne, Rosen offered his audience several aspects of political coverage that ‘impoverished it’: what he described as ‘politics as an inside game’, ‘the cult of savviness’ and ‘the production of innocence’. He then suggested a possible model for change based on political coverage reflecting what is real, and letting the public know what is not, after all, real or true. In Rosen’s model a political journalist should assess the information they garner in four ways and ask themselves whether they are seeing:

  • appearances rendered as fact; e.g. the media stunt
  • phony arguments; e.g. manufactured controversies; sideshows
  • today’s new realities: get the facts; e.g. the actual news of politics
  • real arguments; e.g. debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
For Rosen, this is what citizens need from the political media.

Andrew Elder’s response to Gay Alcorn’s piece raised the issue of how difficult it might be, when you are on the inside of a profession or institution, to see what is happening and to make change from the inside. Ideally, you are best placed to do so. But it’s also possible to be so long or so far in that it’s hard to see how, when, where, why and what change might be needed.

Jonathan Green argued, in The Year My Politics Broke, for a game changer in Australian politics a, change agency person, preferably a different kind of Prime Minister or leader.

I’d argue, perhaps with Elder, that we need Australian game changers in political journalism far more, right now, than we might need a different kind of political leader or politician generally.

There are those, quite a few, who suggest that the rise of the fifth estate is such a change agent. And I would argue that while exciting in its possibilities, it simply isn’t true. Not yet. Not when online only starts-up like The Global Mail fold so quickly. Not while the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun or the Australian or The Age are the probable reading fare of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who don’t yet read the political media online and don’t know how to find it. Neither New Matilda nor The Conversation nor yet Guardian Australia (though it’s growing fast) has yet the extent of readership to influence the voting mind as rapidly as News Corp’s paper-based rags have.

The fourth estate still matters more, because of its power, because of its reach and because of its capacity to influence our governance for the worse or for the better, which is probably why some of us get as angry with it as we do. It’s way past time for the fourth estate to throw up journalists as change agents working from the inside.

One might look just like Jonathan Green … if he’d only seize his impartial partisanship (he doesn’t put a fact wrong) laud it, and teach that, instead of its opposite. (To be wholly in love with Jonathan Green would be quite something.)

One might look like Paul Syvret, working out of the News Corp stable in Brisbane, who produced this astonishingly open piece stating what his own personal positions on many issues were, but equally arguing no reader should simply box him into ‘left’ or ‘right’. Syvret has become one of my other most trusted journalists. It may be that his every article reads like the perfect practice of the Rosen model. I know where he stands. And I trust his evidence.

And one indeed might look like Margot Kingston, who practises now in the fifth estate after a long time in the fourth, and who very recently described herself, when challenged on whether she was ‘really a journalist’, in these words:

I think I've always been an activist journalist. As far as whether this has crossed a line, I've certainly never done any form of embedded journalism before,"

"My policy has been, for a long time, to be very open about who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope that people trust me because of my honesty and transparency. All I want, as a journalist, is for what I say is the truth or report as fact, is believed. I think I have got that, I think my work is trusted journalistically, but yes, this is a very extreme way to report a protest." [my emphasis]

I want real change in my political coverage in Australia.

What do you want?

I see journalists who seem to actively pursue what we might call ‘a partisan impartiality’ in their practice in Australia.

Do you, and if so who?

I think I see some glimmering causes for optimism.

What do you think?

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 1

Quite in love with Jonathan Green

I love Jonathan Green. Indeed, I’ve been quite in love with Jonathan Green for yonks. And that, in media-land, is called ‘disclosure’ (or ‘the big reveal’? Whatever.)

Disclosure is important because this piece is partisan. Whether proudly clutching its first person (it began with ‘I’) or not, this piece like any other can be nought but partisan. Partisan is precisely how we roll and what we are — all of us. (But let’s hope what happens next is also truthful and attentive to the facts.)

So why have I ere-long loved the Green?

Is it the kindly rounded face guesting every now and again on ABCNews24’s The Drum, murmuring wisdoms, occasionally pained, but often beaming genial benevolence?

(*Green starts at 2.30 mins.)

Is it the gentle calm about the ABC radio voice — that it almost never rises, even when the topic is confronting and the participants adversarial; that it holds steady through repeated challenge; that it slips in questions so deferentially as to seem innocuous? (But they’re not, of course.)

It is that the Green’s froggy tweets [@GreenJ] are quite sublime — a mastering of the ‘mot’ so ‘bon’ they out-‘wit’ all others?

Or that his weekly Thursday columns on The Drum website challenge us not only to look but really to learn from what we see?

Whichever way he captivates, this voice has been, for me, a trusted one in media. Not surprising, then, that I leapt to acquire The Year My Politics Broke by Green, a work in fine journalistic tradition of analysis on the 2013 Federal election, the moment it was digitised and out.

But — there is indeed a ‘but’ — while I didn’t quite know it then, I was a reader on a mission. After all, The Year My Politics Broke is written by an insider having voice across four communication platforms (add the book and we make five). Would this powerful, trusted voice shed new, or any, light on the role the fourth estate had played in letting loose the brutal wrenching dogs of pseudo-democracy we’ve just inherited — apparently by vote? If anyone knew the go on media culpability, Green surely would.

I have wondered ever since our last federal election whether journalists in Australia really truly, saw, never mind understood, the anger that hundreds of thousands of Australians felt so directly for so many of them before and after it. Aussie journalists sold Australian voters down the drain, cried some. Aussie journalism hadn’t done its job, said others. Tagged repeatedly by new online media and the fifth estate, even just in this last twelve months, who in the fourth has been listening?

So furious have been some judgments of betrayal, of an abdication of responsibility so heinous, that a chosen consequence could only be arraigning some of them — this very fourth estate — for treason. Those hungry for some kind of just consequence for media inadequacy are not ‘rusted-on’ (the usual disparaging epithet) party-aligned loonies; these are rusted-on human beings (I like to think I’m one) who feel betrayed utterly by press as much as politicians.

And I’ve wondered since; how aware now is the fourth estate that extreme citizen unrest persists, that the language of anger (and yes, I do use Twitter as something of a barometer, but not the only one) is, however extreme the analogy, increasingly aligning what is happening in the Australian political environment with the 1930s rise of fascism (not to mention the part some media played), and resistance — any impetus for action — with notions of real revolution?

Might Green have seen this as he reflected on the ‘breaking’ of his, indeed he argues Australia’s, own politics? Does he see it now? (Surely, I ask myself, after the ‘March in March’ event of 15–17 March the fourth estate might see a little more … now? Or not, as Mr Denmore considers.)

Green’s first chapter (available here in full), though, is one of the most incisive and intelligent dissections of where the last three years or more of politician and press shenanigans have left all things to do with the polity that I have thus far seen. (You really should read it.)

His very first sentence holds a palpable sense of his own disappointment in what modern Australian politics has become: ‘At some point they refined the art of politics, whittling it down to a nub of cynical ambition couched in something that from the middle distance might pass for belief’.

On the ‘sum of modern politics’ he further notes that there is good and bad policy, the good often squandered through a focus on its ‘inter-party or intra-party effect’ because of ‘fear of adverse reaction’, and the bad sculpted from fear to create division that is politically useful. It is, he surmises, a system reacting to circumstance rather than being ‘driven by belief’.

There’s no doubt at all that Green’s personal ‘J’accuse’ includes the press:

And how did we come to this? It’s hard not to overstate the role that the media have played—another institution, like formal politics, looking increasingly uncertain in a world of changing verities and technological circumstances. They have both gone down together in public estimation, our politicians and our press, two estates fundamental to our democratic health, but engaged in a mutually self-destructive relationship.

Quite soon (Chapter 2), ‘the press’ are called (or are they?) on their coverage of the Rudd revival. Green suggests the public interest was little served by coverage of what ‘seemed like little more than self-serving figments … shreds of deliberately laid, wishful myth’ of which he says: ‘And we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this, never challenge the source of all the rumour and ambitious innuendo’ [my emphasis].

Journalistic motives in the Rudd saga are, however, explored In Chapter 2. Significantly, the framework of impartiality in journalism is brought into play. Suggesting that some senior correspondents thought a Rudd comeback likely or, for some reason, desirable, he notes: ‘Again, an impossible proposition to prove or detect, thanks to the notion of confidentiality and the pervading assumption of journalistic impartiality’ [my emphasis].

By Green’s third chapter, the kind of bollocking Andrew Elder has been serving out for years to the press in general and the Canberra Gallery in particular is underway:

Is this a wilful blindness? If Australia’s political discussion is lost into a pit of rudeness and tripe, it has been dumped there by press as much as by politicians … could politicians behave in that manner if the media forced the issue and used its collective intelligence and informational bargaining power? …

The media could play a role in the cure too, of course, but turn a famously tin ear to these discussions … Just fine if the work of these men and women had no broader public impact, if the system was a closed cell whose failures and transgressions could be safely ignored. But the public trust invested in a free press demands a better return than the flabby self-indulgence of so much of the political reporting-as-usual …

If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail. A shorthand for the position might be policy over personality, but perhaps that’s too tempting an oversimplification.

It hardly seems to matter, in any event, because nothing seems more resolute than the collective failure of Canberra press to just get this simple point. Our gallery hacks are rarely called on it, even though the consensus growing among the increasingly audible community they putatively serve seems to be that our press is not to be trusted or relied upon.

And the one group dealt out of the exchange were the voters, the viewers, the ordinary Australians, the real losers in this cartel collusion between politics and press that substitutes reality for self-serving political fictions [my emphasis].

But it’s not until Chapter 7 that Green next tackles the political press. Writing of press coverage of the ‘pink batts’ affair Green notes: ‘The betrayal of the reader/voter implied in this is obvious, and it suggests either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media. Or worse than either, it implies partisan journalistic activism’ [my emphasis].

The press really don’t appear again. Instead, towards the end of his treatise (Chapter 11) Green hands us this:

It’s a cycle that needs a circuit breaker before the entire apparatus consumes itself tail first.

And that circuit breaker may just be the popularity of a politician who sees all this, plays to it as well as anyone, but somehow manages to send a simultaneous signal that things need to change, that none of this serves us well. A charismatic celebrity candidate who nonetheless embraces a suite of big ideas, ideas made more palatable by fame, ideas that also mirror the public distaste for the stale systems of media and politics as they stand. It might have been Turnbull. It could have been Rudd. It’s not a description that seems to fit Abbott. We may be surprised or we may have some waiting to do.

It is true in so many ways that The Year My Politics Broke doesn’t disappoint. But it is also true that many more words are spent on the failure of politicians and politics than on how we mediate through the political press our trust in both. Green’s thought of the possibility of a leader who could turn it all around is virtually his only suggestion for how change might occur. A popular charismatic leader is his answer? And, yes, while it isn’t fair to ask someone to write the book you wanted rather than the one you got, I am bemused by a respected elder of the journalistic profession who wrote so vehemently against ‘the cartel collusion’ of politics and press seeming then to offer little more than an ‘oh woe’ and a wish for a new messiah.

I am more confused than bemused at how Green seems initially to position himself: ‘we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this’ or ‘our gallery hacks are rarely called on this’. Well he isn’t ‘the public’, of course. By all first principles of the estates, and by virtue of the layers of media expression he has access to, he’s in a far more powerful position than, say, I am for calling anyone in public life on anything. And the public, by virtue of social media apart from any other way, consistently did call the press ‘on this’. And so indeed did he in November 2012 in ‘Partisan hyperbole: mistaking a claque for a clap’ where he notes ‘a puffed up, perpetually outraged and campaigning media can be a political trap …’, and continued to do in February 2014 in ‘Slogans stifle debate – and we let them’ where he raises the question of what might have happened in the last federal election ‘ … if our media had pushed harder for more considered responses and insisted that the electoral argument go beyond cliché and slogan …’

It seems, then, that Green chooses to comment on the habits of political journalism as if he were not a member of the media. If you are not, perhaps you don’t have to act (other than to comment) for change?

There may be a clue to the apparent contradiction in how strongly Green states, as a cause for the failures of the political press, that the public assume the ‘impartiality’ of journalists when what they often get is ‘either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media … [or] worse than either … partisan journalistic activism’.

Worse, no less: partisan journalistic activism.

Green is looking for new and different political leaders to bring change to politics, and presumably (by osmosis?) to that colluding political press.

Part of a love that is still ‘quite’ is that I’m equally looking for leaders in journalism to bring change to the political media. Jonathan, for all that I esteem his work, does not yet seem to be putting up his hand.

For some time US journalist, professor and critic Jay Rosen has been critiquing political journalism. In 2011 at the Melbourne Writers festival he set the cat amongst the journalistic pigeons by giving an address titled ‘Why political coverage is broken’. In it he defined something he calls ‘the production of innocence’ in journalism:

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or her innocence.

One reason why a journalist as fine as Jonathan Green leads us to the nub of the problem but seems unable to lead us on to solutions is, I’d suggest, that we are in a very moral muddle about partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or ‘neutral’ journalism.

In ‘Truth, with partisan on the side: Part 2’ I want to explore this suggestion further.

But for now:

  • Is political journalism in Australia broken?
  • Should we be looking for leaders in political journalism who might make a new compact with both the public and their own estate?
  • What might leaders and compact be like, if we did?
What do you think?

Bringing Gross National Happiness into play

In my series of articles about where the Left should be heading in our new world, I suggested that adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of economic progress should be one element of a new approach for the Left. In this piece I will examine why that is important, what it means, and how Labor can also move towards adopting the concept of GNH while still seeking government.

The basic idea is that GNH, in one form or another, would replace, or at the very least supplement, the current measure of economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The use of GDP to measure economic activity only arose during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the American government was concerned that they did not see the depression coming. The government asked economic experts for a model that would allow it to keep track of the economy and so have a chance of foreseeing such events in the future. GDP only came into widespread use, however, after 1944, with the Bretton Woods agreement and the establishment of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

GDP measures a nation’s economic activity either by summing the outputs of every category of enterprise to reach a total market value of products and services, or by summing the expenditure in acquiring those goods and services, or the income of the producers in selling them: each approach should come to the same final number.

There is also another measure termed Gross National Product (GNP). It differs from GDP only in terms of measuring the value of all products and services produced by a nation, whether within its own borders or overseas by its citizens:

For example, if a Japanese company such as Honda has an auto-manufacturing plant in the United States then the output of that plant becomes part of the U.S. GDP but not its GNP because Honda is not a U.S.-owned company. The output of the plant instead becomes a part of Japan’s GNP.

It would be interesting to see how Australia measured up on GNP given the prevalence of overseas ownership of our businesses.

The use of GDP, however, began being questioned as early as the late 1950s. Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, said that ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income’.

A major problem with GDP is that it measures only productive activity and takes no account of the losses or costs associated with the activity:

… it tends to go up after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and remediation spur intense activity that is registered by GDP, while the destruction, lives lost, suffering and disruption to families and communities in the wake of a flood, cyclone or bushfire are ignored.

Or as Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

… the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. [added emphasis]

And while GDP aggregates national income, it does nothing to indicate how that income is distributed. That is why the Gini coefficient is sometimes used, as it provides a statistical measure of distribution: under the Gini coefficient it is theoretically possible for a rich and a poor country to have the same coefficient, simply meaning that the low national income of the poor country is distributed among families and households in the same proportions as the higher income of the rich country.

The small nation of Bhutan, rather than relying on GDP to follow its progress, decided in 1972 to adopt a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although the term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan the concept has a much longer resonance in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

(Perhaps we should apply that last statement to our governments!)

GNH has nine ‘domains’: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

There are also 33 indicators and 124 variables for measuring results. There are roles for government, communities and individuals in achieving ‘happiness’. ‘Happiness’ is defined by having a ‘sufficiency’ in the domains. In Bhutan, the government’s main role is in decreasing the ‘insufficiencies’ of ‘unhappy’ people. While in one sense the GNH is specific to Bhutan (it includes a number of local cultural indicators), its purpose of measuring well-being applies where GDP fails. GNH has been discussed in UN forums and has influenced economists in the developed world.

A number of alternatives to GDP have been developed over the years such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and more recently the Social Progress Index (SPI).

The UN has the Human Development Index (HDI) which basically looks at life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and literacy, and gross national income per capita — developed countries, like Australia, tend to score highly on this as it is primarily aimed at developing nations. The SPI is similar but adds extra dimensions and allows disaggregation of results, so that while Australia still rates highly overall on the SPI it rates more lowly (as many rich countries do) on the sub-set of ecosystem sustainability: and while Sweden tops the SPI it ranks more lowly on ‘shelter’ owing to weaknesses in affordable housing.

In 2012, the UN introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) which includes not only economic capital, but human capital and environmental capital, and provided a report on 20 countries, examining their growth between 1990 and 2008: an example of four nations comparing GDP and IWI growth is shown in the following table:

Nation GDP growth 1990-2008 IWI growth 1990-2008
China 422% 45%
USA 37% 13%
Brazil 31% 18%
South Africa 24% -1%

The lower IWI growth in each country was due primarily to the depletion of natural resources in achieving GDP growth. An interesting contrast is Germany, which achieved 30% GDP growth but 38% growth using the IWI owing to significant investment in human capital (education).

In the same period Australia achieved average annual growth of 2.2% in GDP but only 0.1% in IWI.

Similarly other measures, like the FISH and GPI show that in the USA, the UK and Australia, GDP has grown significantly since the 1970s (up to threefold in the USA) but the FISH and GPI indexes have barely moved.

When the results of these alternative measures are considered, it clearly suggests that rising GDP has not improved social well-being, and that economies are not growing as strongly as suggested if the costs of achieving GDP are factored in. If the Gini coefficient is added into the equation, it also shows increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in many nations, both developing and developed, since the 1970s. If those aren’t good reasons for adopting something other than GDP as a measure of progress, I don’t know what is!

These various approaches do, however, indicate that there is a serious attempt being made to move away from the exclusive use of GDP as a measure of economic progress. It is perhaps an acknowledgment that GDP measures economic activity, not progress.

In recent years the GPI was the front runner to replace GDP. It has been adopted by the US states of Maryland and Vermont and a number of other states, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon, are considering it, and Canada has adopted aspects of it.

It is probably the most popular because, like GDP, it is still measuring economic growth based on monetary values but, instead of just summing all production, it includes the dollar value cost of some activities and tries to give a value to other activities not currently valued in the market, for example:

  • the poor benefit more than the rich from a rise in income, so the GPI rises when their share of national wealth increases
  • the value of housework and volunteering are added, calculated at the rate of hiring someone to undertake the same tasks
  • the costs arising from crime are deducted
  • costs of pollution, degradation of wetlands, forests, farmland, etc are costs to be deducted from economic growth, as are estimates of longer term environmental damage
  • the GPI also goes up if leisure time increases
  • for consumer durables GPI treats the capital expenditure as a cost to the economy and the value is added for each year of service they provide.
It is more difficult to calculate than GDP, which may weigh against its widespread use and with the UN’s Inclusive Wealth Index now in play, the latter may become more favoured over the next few years (especially if it adds a measurement of social capital which it is aiming to do).

While the GPI and similar approaches may keep economists happy and provide governments with a more realistic measure of economic growth, it may not necessarily make the people happier.

Even the OECD has recognised that measuring well-being goes beyond purely monetary indicators. Subjective measures such as ‘life satisfaction’ are now included in survey questions on well-being and the OECD acknowledges evidence that this subjective measure actually shows up in objective measures: people showing a higher level of life satisfaction are likely to be more productive, more collaborative in the workplace, generally have better long-term health, can better pursue long-term goals and so on.

A problem with the current approach is that it is leading towards having a number of different measures operating together— some suggest that GDP remains important to monitor the economic cycle. So we could end up with GDP reflecting movements in economic activity, something like GPI or IWI taking a wider view of the costs of achieving GDP, and something that measures social well-being. Such a combination, while valuable, would leave policy makers with the discretion as to which they choose to drive policy. Public debate needs to drive policy and that really requires a single approach that can be readily understood, not having to combine the different evidence from three or more measures.

To my mind the GNH already blends much of what these other measures are trying to achieve.

In its surveys, it asks questions on life satisfaction and self-reported health status but also about the number of healthy days a person experienced in the past month; it asks about time use, working hours and sleeping hours (as sufficient sleep is seen as necessary for health and productivity); it asks about political participation; about social support, community relationships, and victims of crime; about pollution and wildlife and an individual’s environmental responsibility. In approaching education, it looks at literacy and educational qualifications but also at knowledge and values (based on the dominant Buddhist precepts in Bhutan). Three of its five knowledge questions are about local cultural issues, but it also asks about the Constitution and HIV/AIDS (a significant issue in Bhutan). The 2010 report concluded that despite rising literacy, people’s ‘knowledge’ of their locality was poor. I think that wider focus on local knowledge and values is an interesting inclusion that could have application in Western countries, as it attempts to quantify knowledge obtained outside the formal education system.

Yes, the GNH would need to be adapted to a modern western economy but the basics are there. For measurement purposes it would be possible to use the statistical approaches developed for some of the other indexes mentioned previously. In Australia, the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) already conducts Social Trends surveys and that data can also be used.

So this is not an impossible task. People may baulk at the idea of a ‘happiness’ index but it can be renamed – perhaps a National Well-being Index or a National Progress Indicator.

Labor, in seeking government, would no doubt be reluctant to take the concept of GNH to an election. They would be open to criticism by the LNP that they were ignoring ‘economic fundamentals’ — the LNP already rates higher with the electorate in terms of ‘managing the economy’. That is one reason I suggested in my three part article on the Left that Labor needs to work at changing the tenor of the economic debate.

Being realistic, I would see Labor adopting the multiple-measure approach, at least initially: so there would be GDP, GPI or IWI, and a well-being measure akin to GNH. But what needs to be done is make GDP a background measure, and begin emphasising the real value of our economy (GPI or IWI) and the social benefits (improved well-being and equity). Labor should seek to emphasise that the order of importance of these measures is GPI/IWI first, well-being second and GDP third, and focus on GPI/IWI, not GDP, in public debate. The long term strategy should be that GDP drops from public view as the main measurement of economic progress and that, over time, well-being assumes first place in the public hierarchy of progress measurements. The other measurements, and eventually only the GPI/IWI, then become the economic background against which the government decides which policies are tenable to improve social well-being (happiness).

That will take time and will not be easy. The vested interests of big business and global corporations will mostly oppose it. They like GDP because it measures what they are producing, taking no account of environmental or social costs. While GDP reigns, so does big business because it can argue that for every downturn or slowing in GDP growth it needs government policies that will help it boost production and so increase GDP again. I will concede that at the WEF at Davos in January this year, the global corporations represented there did show some concern for environmental and resource costs because they are realising that continued unfettered use of natural resources and damage to the environment will eventually affect their ‘bottom line’. Unfortunately there appears no sign of this realisation in Australia and that is unlikely to change while GDP rules the economic debate here and while political parties also pay homage to it.

What do you think?

Number 982

Michael Gawenda was the editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne from 1997 until 2004. He is currently a Fellow of University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, after serving as the inaugural Director of the Centre in 2009. After finishing school, he studied economics and politics, then he moved to Papua New Guinea to work as an economist. He returned to Australia in 1970 after deciding that economics wasn’t the career path for him.

An internship at The Age in 1970 led to a 37 year career in which Michael rose to become the Editor in Chief in 2003. Along the way, he was awarded three Walkley Awards and was a feature writer, news writer and foreign correspondent. The Age endorsed the Liberal Party in the 2004 federal election while Gawenda was Editor in Chief — something that was condemned by Crikey at the time. Ironically by 2009, Gawenda was writing the Rocky and Gawenda blog for Crikey.

All in all, Michael Gawenda is respected in his profession and has made an outstanding contribution to Australian life. Gawenda is also a refugee. Gawenda’s family are of Polish descent and Michael Gawenda was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria in 1947. His family arrived in Australia three years later and lived with his father’s cousin. You can read his personal account of early life in Australia here on the Refugee Council’s website.

Most Australians have heard of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The scheme was a result of the Curtin Government’s ‘populate or perish’ policy, designed to protect Australia from invasion by Japan. Briefly, adults from any Commonwealth country could gain passage to Australia for the sum of ten pounds — accompanying children were free. While the policy was changed over the years to increase the level of skill required, as well as to allow entry for immigrants from other European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, the policy of increasing the population of this country for economic and security benefits continued, supported by both ALP and Coalition governments.

The scheme’s peak year was 1969 when more than 80,000 people immigrated to Australia using assisted passage arrangements and, while it is estimated that approximately one quarter of those that immigrated returned to their country of origin, ‘Ten Pound Poms’ have made a significant contribution to Australian life. Some of the better known assisted immigrants include Tony Abbott (current prime minister), Julia Gillard (past prime minister), The Bee Gees (musicians and song writers), Noni Hazlehurst (actor), Alan Bond (businessman), Frank Tyson (English test cricketer) and Harold Larwood (English test cricketer of ‘bodyline’ fame). In addition, actor/musician Kylie Minogue’s mother, and the parents of both Whitlam government minister Al Grassby and actor Hugh Jackman, were also assisted immigrants.

Tony Le Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1968. Le Nguyen has worked as an actor, writer, director and producer — as well as being the first official Vietnamese Australian to be appointed as a Prison Visitor in Victoria. He had a role in Romper Stomper as well as a number of other Australian productions as varied as GP, Fast Forward, Stingers and Sea Change. Le Nguyen founded the Australian Vietnamese Youth Media in 1994 and has directed a number of community and professional productions since then.

Le Nguyen’s father was a teacher and interpreter working for the South Vietnamese government. The family made two attempts to escape from Vietnam using unsuitable boats and spent some in refugee camps in south-east Asia. In 1979, his family was accepted for resettlement in Australia. You can read his personal account of the struggle to live in Vietnam, leave Vietnam, and life in Australia on the Refugee Council’s website.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is a hip and knee orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney. You may have seen some media coverage recently when he used a pioneering technique to ‘install’ artificial limbs. The Australian Women’s Weekly told the story of Mitch Grant in the November 2013 issue and the News Limited Sunday papers recently carried an article regarding his work with Michael Swain, a British veteran of the Afghanistan War. In both cases Dr Al Muderis affixed posts to the remaining stumps of legs and connected the artificial limb to the post. This ensured that artificial limbs would not be subject to the customary problems where the artificial limb rubs or doesn’t make contact with the remaining natural limb. In Michael Swain’s case, he arrived in Sydney in a wheelchair but walked down the aerobridge when it was time to return to London.

As you have probably deduced by now, Munjed Al Muderis is also a refugee — in this case from Iraq, where he was ordered as a junior surgeon to cut the ears off people accused of crimes against the Hussein government. His website has a biography and gives some detail of his experiences in becoming a world-renowned surgeon. His story is also told in the article that discusses Michael Swain — who is due to receive an MBE from the Queen in April 2014 and ‘walk down the aisle’ in June.

Dr Al Muderis is the ‘Number 982’ that heads this piece — that was his number at the Curtin ‘Detention’ Centre and all that he was called by the authorities when incarcerated there for ten months.

Humans have basic needs for shelter, food, security, protection and stability. Maslow’s Theory suggests that once basic needs such as food and shelter are met, humans will seek security, protection and stability. It is questionable that a human’s food and shelter needs are met if they are living under a government that is punishing families, as demonstrated by the narratives of Michael Gawenda, Tony Le Nguyen or Munjed Al Muderis. Those responsible for the decision to become refugees demonstrated their basic desire for food, shelter, protection and stability — as did a majority of those who emigrated to Australia in the past 40,000 years. To suggest that asylum seekers or refugees is solely an Australian problem is ludicrous. The UNHCR reports that Australia received 15,998 refugees in 2012 — 3% of the world total.

Most the people named in this piece are immigrants to Australia, as are the rest of us — regardless of whether we walked off an Airbus A380 last week or our ancestors walked across a land-bridge from Asia 40,000 years ago. We have all in our own way contributed to the vibrant, clever and prosperous country that we call home. Those people detailed above are a small sample of those that made significant contributions to our country — far outweighing any assistance the country gave immigrants to start their lives here. For the majority of the twentieth century Australia actively sought people to immigrate here through refugee programs, the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme and the resettlement of some 200,000 people, mostly from Asia, in the period 1975 to 1982, including 2,059 ‘boat people’. Yet in the twenty-first century we have a prime minister that got to power partly using the mantra of ‘stop the boats’.

Not that the ALP is blameless here. Since Keating introduced ‘detention’ centres, there has been a considerable amount of ‘me-too-ism’ in the policies of both major political parties in this country in regard to assisting refugees from all parts of the world who are seeking asylum in this country. Howard’s Coalition government seems to have managed the Tampa Affair, when a Norwegian ship picked up some refugees and attempted to land them on Australian soil, only to be refused, to maximise his Government’s vote.

Since then there has been a number of efforts to make various Government’s look ‘tough’ on border protection, usually at the expense of refugees. The Australian Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard was no more humanitarian than the LNP under Howard and Abbott. They all saw the potential for votes and have competed in this race to the bottom in abysmal treatment to fellow human beings.

So, instead of demonising these people for domestic political purposes, why wouldn’t a political party that wants to demonstrate fairness and equity to all change the conversation within Australia? Instead of punitive action against fellow humans — that in the majority are doing it far worse that any Australian — why not a conversation about how refugees over the past 60 years have brought a great deal of material benefit to this country? Examples could range from the ubiquitous country town café of the 1950s and 60s up until today when people travel half way across the world to be treated by a refugee from Iraq — as in the case of Michael Swain.

The Liberal Party website tells us that many years ago:

Robert Menzies believed the time was right for a new political force in Australia — one which fought for the freedom of the individual and produced enlightened liberal policies.

Ben Chifley around the same time gave his ‘light on the hill’ speech in which he stated:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective — the light on the hill — which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

It is neither enlightened nor for the betterment of mankind that people, who generally suffer incredible privations in order to better their lives, are treated as prisoners who do not have the same access to services provided to other immigrants and refugees who arrived here in the decades prior to the 1980’s.

How did the two major Australian political parties lose their desire to either ‘[bring] something better to the people … working for the betterment of mankind’ or fight ‘for the freedom of the individual and [produce]… enlightened liberal policies’?

When did the two major political parties become so morally corrupt that they both will use their fellow humans’ pain and suffering to gain political mileage? Isn’t it time that at least one of the two major political parties rediscovered morals and ethics?

What do you think?

In a galaxy far, far away … Australia

At Davos in Switzerland in January this year the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) took place. About 2,600 representatives of government, business, civil society and academia took part, from over a hundred countries. Australian businesses that attended included Leighton Holdings, Fortescue Metals, Westpac, Westfarmers, Coles and Telstra. International corporations included Nestlé, Royal Philips, Microsoft, HSBC, Total and Heineken. Among the political leaders were Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister; David Cameron, British prime minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister; and Hasan Rouhani, Iranian President. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was also there. Quite a gathering.

This year’s programme, which consisted of more than 250 official sessions, was organized under four thematic pillars: Achieving Inclusive Growth; Embracing Disruptive Innovation; Meeting Society’s New Expectations; and Sustaining a World of 9 Billion. Discussions on these issues challenged long-held assumptions about society, politics and business in an effort to generate the powerful ideas and collaborative spirit needed to manage the future course of world affairs.

Our prime minister (cough, spit!) was there and made a speech, one of 254 speakers (one for each official session). I will admit I began watching Tony Abbott’s speech when it was broadcast live on ABC News24 but, with my anger rising and the potential for collateral damage to the television and nearby furniture, was forced to turn it off. From what I later learned, I didn’t miss much. Here was I thinking that in a forum like the WEF Tony Abbott might actually say something meaningful … talk about being delusional!

What it did do, however, was make me look more deeply into what was being discussed at Davos and I was surprised at what I found. The range of issues on the agenda and the number of papers and reports supporting discussion was quite staggering. That led me to the title for this article. I know Abbott’s main reason (perhaps his only reason) for being there was that Australia is hosting the next G20 meeting in November this year and he was to give an outline as to where Australia would lead that meeting. But surely, given the issues being discussed at Davos, one would think he would address at least one of them in detail or dare to ‘challenge long held assumptions’ (as reported as an outcome of the meeting). No, not Abbott, he attacks the Labor party! He did brush on governance and taxation, but not in any profound way, and focused on free trade. He ignored almost all of the risks facing economies and businesses (after all, the WEF is dominated by big, and I mean big business) that are clearly laid out in the agenda for the meeting and, in particular, ignored the social risks.

There were papers on what is called ‘the global agenda’ and the trends for 2014. These forecasts are based on worldwide surveys of business people and samples of the general population prepared by Global Agenda Councils attached to the WEF. The top ten trending issues were:

1. Rising social tensions in the Middle East and North Africa
2. Widening income disparities
3. Persistent structural unemployment
4. Intensifying cyber threats
5. Inaction on climate change
6. Diminishing confidence in economic policies
7. A lack of values in leadership
8. The expanding middle class in Asia
9. The growing importance of megacities
10. The rapid spread of misinformation online.

The second major input was a report on ‘Global Risks’ (its ninth edition). The report for the 2014 meeting included the following top ten risks:

1. Fiscal crises in key economies
2. Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
3. Water crises
4. Severe income disparity
5. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
6. Greater incidence of extreme weather events (eg floods, storms, fires)
7. Global governance failure
8. Food crises
9. Failure of major financial mechanism/institution
10. Profound political and social instability.

Fifty risks, including those ten, were plotted on a risk chart with the traditional axes of ‘Likelihood’ and ‘Impact’ (again based on survey responses). The events listed in the top right quarter (ie more likely with high impact) included:

  • Income disparity (most likely, seventh-highest impact)
  • Extreme weather events (second most likely, fifth-highest impact)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (third most likely, fourth-highest impact)
  • Climate change (fourth most likely, second-highest impact)
  • Cyber attacks (fifth most likely, eighth-highest impact)
  • Water crises (sixth most likely, third-highest impact)
  • Fiscal crises (seventh most likely, highest impact)
  • Ecosystem collapse (only rated fourteenth most likely, but sixth in terms of impact).
Obviously businesses are concerned about these risks, not for any altruistic reasons but for the impact on their capacity to ‘do business’ and their ‘bottom line’. In other words, for business these are seen as pressures on the market or issues that may distort the market. Also the social unrest that may result is not good for business — or government.

Putting the two lists together, it could be said that the key threats are:

  • Climate change and environmental issues (failure to address climate change, water crises, food crises, greater incidence of extreme weather events, ecosystem collapse)
  • Increasing inequality (widening/severe income disparity)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (structurally high unemployment, with particular emphasis on youth unemployment and its longer term implications for economies and social stability).
The reports indicate that while there is action on climate change it is not moving fast enough which, it is suggested, leads to the perception that little is being done. One report suggests $70-100 billion per year to 2050 is required in developed countries to effectively address climate change: another that, although $1 trillion has already been invested in renewable energy, a further $1 trillion per year is required. A complete transformation of economies is necessary: but one report positively suggests that such transformations have occurred before, eg the first industrial revolution and the digital revolution. So what is Australia doing? Eliminating the carbon tax and support for renewable energy industries. Our prime minister also suggests that fires and floods are normal in Australia, are not occurring at a more frequent rate, and that any expert who says otherwise is ‘talking through [their] hat’. To top it off on 6 February he proudly announced he wanted to make Australia the ‘affordable energy capital of the world’. How? By using cheap coal, the same energy source we are trying to reduce because of its impact on climate change. Yes, Australia has lots of cheap coal — just a shame that our grandchildren may not have much of a planet left on which to enjoy this cheap energy!

Yes, on climate change Abbott definitely believes Australia is on another planet. Or, perhaps as I suggested in an earlier post, taking us back to the 1800s: my prognostication in that article that we may need to use more coal and timber is coming true.

Forty-four per cent of Australians think the economic system favours the wealthy (from surveys conducted in 2013). That percentage is low on a global scale (60% in North America; 70% in Europe; 64% in Asia; 70% in the Middle East and North Africa) but still significant. The WEF reports indicate that while inequality is a major problem in developing countries, it is also significant in developed countries and has the capacity to increase social unrest:

The incredible wealth created over the last decade in the US has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and this disparity stems from many of the same roots as in developing nations.

First among them is a lack of access to high quality basic primary and secondary education for all segments of our society. Additionally it has become prohibitively expensive for the average middle-income family to send their child to college in the US; higher education, once seen as the great equaliser and engine for economic mobility, is becoming unaffordable for far too many.

I will address inequality in a future post but here in Australia, following the argument in the quote, dismantling the full impact of the ‘Gonski’ funding reforms for education will only increase inequality; creating more independent ‘public’ schools is likely to lead to increased fees, further fuelling inequality; trying to reduce workers’ wages, such as the government’s recent submission to Fair Work Australia to examine whether penalty rates are still valid in a modern economy, may only lead to the ‘working poor’ and greater inequality as in America.

Unemployment appears not to be a major problem in Australia, although there is still significant youth unemployment and underemployment, which has been an issue for some years. Abbott’s approach, like John Howard’s, is that ‘any job is better than no job’ even if it is at the minimum wage or lower. It seems we will end up with a class of working poor not because of happenstance (read bad economic management) but because Abbott actually wants to create it — at least then some of the big companies supporting him will have the cheap labour they so crave.

The Global Risks report actually made ‘global governance failure’ the pivot of all the risks, arguing that as the risks are global or have global implications (especially for global corporations!), they therefore require global action. Such action is reliant on global governance mechanisms, so that was a major concern. To my mind, this is simply big business shifting the responsibility.

Why did Abbott ignore these issues at Davos? Why are Australian businesses ignoring them when the rest of the world’s businesses are seeing them as major threats? Perhaps our only hope is that the global corporations operating in Australia start making noises to the government that these issues should be addressed or they may take their business elsewhere. Other factors are already tempting big business to leave Australia: cheaper labour costs in Asia; and the emergence of the Asian middle class which prompts companies to take their production closer to such a large and growing market. If we don’t address other issues that global corporations are concerned about, such as those raised at Davos, what will we have left to attract any business — and that situation will be worsened by forcing the closure of our own local businesses with decisions like that regarding SPC-Ardmona.

One other interesting report, and it was a ‘featured’ report, which suggests it was deemed to have some significance, was ‘Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains’. A couple of quotes summarise the gist of the report:

Progressive companies and forward-looking governments are shifting their attention from old style sustainability — a linear concept that goes from take and use to dispose — towards a ‘circular’ approach. This ‘circular’ approach effectively decouples growth from rising resource constraints in a world that will add 3 billion middle-class consumers over the next 15 years …

… Leading global companies are already building the concept of the circular economy into the way they do business. It is helping them to drive innovation across product design, to develop product-to-service approaches and to test new ways of recovering materials from redundant products such as old mobile phones. Heineken, for example, is now pursuing circular practices across its whole value chain.

China is adopting the circular approach in its latest five-year plan.

For business, the approach is deemed profitable. The value of the market in consumer goods in Europe is estimated at €3.2 trillion ‘of which 20% could be recuperated through smart circular practices’. In layman’s terms it is about taking ‘recycling’ to the next level.

Has anyone heard of this being discussed in Australia? I certainly haven’t but I am retired and outside the loop where such things may be raised. But leaving that aside, I have not seen it mentioned in the many articles I read. (After completing my original version of this piece, I did eventually find one article in Casablanca’s excellent Cache) So where is Australia on this? On another planet, or just so far behind we can only see the dust of those ahead of us!

I honestly do not understand which planet Abbott (indeed, much of Australian big business) thinks we are on — it is certainly not the planet Earth in the Milky Way but perhaps another earth in a galaxy far, far away …

What do you think?

Is Australia becoming a guided democracy?

On 8 February 2014, there was a by-election for the federal seat of Griffith due to the resignation from politics of the former member Kevin Rudd. Terri Butler, representing the ALP, won the seat. This comment was posted on the Fairfax Media’s on-line coverage of the event:

I think I'd prefer a highly programmed robot rather than anything that's really been on offer from either right side of politics. They'll have to start making a new suit for the ALPLNP Party, a suit with two right arms with one just a little further right than the other.

It demonstrates the opinion of a considerable number of the population of Australia and can be summed up as ‘there is no or little difference between the ALP and LNP’, that whichever party one votes for the outcome will be the same.

Where countries seem to have free and fair elections but the result really doesn’t matter there is, as you would expect, a name for the concept — Guided Democracy. Wikipedia suggests that there have been a number of countries that have operated in this fashion either in the past or the present. They include Indonesia, Putin’s Russia and possibly even the USA.

Indonesia’s history since the end of World War 2 and independence from the Dutch is interesting. Between 1950 and 1998, there were only two Indonesian presidents — Sukarno and Suharto. The first, Sukarno, actually promoted his leadership as guided democracy or ‘Demokrasi Terpimpin’ from 1957. Rather than the traditional leadership model where the political elite devises and implements the policy of the government, Sukarno’s belief was that the government should be led in a similar way to traditional villages where the ‘elders’ consider and discuss the problem and then agree on a solution.

A central council of 42 people from a cross section of Indonesia was formed and tasked with considering issues and providing advice to Sukarno’s cabinet. While there was no requirement to comply with the advice, it was rarely ignored. The process was introduced in the late 1950’s apparently in an attempt to placate the military, religious groups and communists.

The military, religious groupings and communists then naturally attempted to increase their ‘power bases’. The military nationalised a number of Dutch companies; the religious commenced the ‘Islamic State’ debate; and the PKI (Communist Party) entrenched itself into all state institutions except for the cabinet. By the early 60’s, there was significant corruption and jockeying for position. However the PKI had ensured that it was the only political party with any strength.

Suharto was a ‘trusted’ major-general during Sukarno’s rule and was effectively ‘the last man standing’ after a coup attempt and became president in 1968. Although elections continued, the government also appointed 100 members to parliament. A People’s Consultative Assembly was also created to which the government appointed one-third of members.

The next ‘western’ style democratic election in Indonesia, after the declaration of Demokrasi Terpimpin, was not until 1999 after the fall of Suharto.

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia. On 9 August 1999, then President Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three deputy prime ministers and later that day he was appointed the acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. Later again on the same day, Yeltsin was reported as suggesting that Putin should be his successor — and Putin agreed to run for president. A week later, the State Duma (parliament) confirmed Putin as prime minister.

Yeltsin resigned as president on 31 December 1999 and Putin was appointed acting president. Putin’s first decree was to ensure that corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were not pursued. Putin then comfortably won the subsequent presidential election held in March 2000 (three months ahead of the scheduled date and before the opposition parties could organise).

Putin was re-elected president in 2004 and was legally not able to run in the 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected in his place. The day after the election, Putin was appointed to the position of prime minister of the Russian Federation. Putin was subsequently re-elected as president in 2012, appointed Medvedev as prime minister and commenced action to stifle protest groups by imprisoning the leaders, removing the influence of non-governmental organisations that received foreign assistance, and pursuing a campaign of anti-American rhetoric, including the granting of asylum to Edward Snowdon — who is accused of leaking US diplomatic cables to various news organisations around the world.

A theory promoted by Sheldon Wolin suggests that the USA is heading on a similar path to the examples of guided democracy we have looked at above. Wolin’s theory is that instead of a ‘strong leader’ who is able to influence the country’s direction for an extended period (and the seemingly inevitable corruption that goes with that), corporations through lobbying and donations control government actions; the rise of political apathy is promoted (the only expectation is to vote and low turnouts are thought of as successful); and the election of ‘personalities’ rather than ‘people’ is supported. Wolin also claims there are similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany (as we recently briefly discussed here on The Political Sword) and the USA’s regular claim that they are the only world superpower and the home of democracy, which gives the US the ‘right’ to declare war and participate in actions that are clearly not democratic.

It could be suggested that a couple of state governments in Australia have been close to running a guided democracy — the prime examples being Queensland under the Country/National Party and South Australia under Playford.

The Country/Nationals & Liberal Party Coalition (subsequently the Nationals solely) were in power in Queensland for a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987 because those that lived west of the Great Dividing Range generally had a considerably greater number of MP’s for the level of population. Bjelke-Petersen was premier from 1968 to 1987. While Bjelke-Petersen didn’t implement the gerrymander, he certainly used it to his advantage. The embedded corruption in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era is well documented: there were proven corruption charges against a number of National Party ‘identities’ and Bjelke-Petersen himself was never cleared of corruption charges that were made against him. The then acting premier of Queensland (when Bjelke-Petersen was overseas) initiated the Fitzgerald enquiry, which eventually led to a fairer election system, as well as the reduction in influence that was held by National Party ‘connections’ and the police force.

Playford served as premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965 despite losing each election from 1947 on the popular vote. It took a protest by the public to start the process of fair and equitable boundaries, introduced by Playford’s successor.

So, is Australia in danger of becoming a guided democracy? A guided democracy seems to be reliant on a group of people being in power for decades and power being shared around the same group of people. That certainly isn’t the case in Australia with frequent leadership contests for parliamentary leadership. While corporations attempt to influence politicians, they cannot openly ‘buy a vote in Congress’ as they seem to be able to do in the USA. The military is not an economic force to be reckoned with or sharing power in Australia as seems to be the case in Indonesia. The Australian government allows open dissent to their position on any issue – unlike Putin’s Russia.

Let’s look at Australia’s record.

Are the same small groups of people continually power sharing? Occasionally someone who can demonstrate that they don’t follow the standard political norms in Australia can get up and win, such as Cathy McGowan in Indi at the 2013 federal election, or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott effectively deciding who would be prime minister in the last parliament — they are certainly results that the ‘political establishment’ didn’t see coming. Has the same leader been ‘in power’ for a long period of time? The Coalition holds the federal record for a 23 year term, due in part to the ALP/DLP split of the 1950’s: although Menzies was prime minister for 17 of those years, there were another four leaders in the last six years. On the ALP side, the Hawke/Keating government lasted 13 years with two prime ministers.

Is there institutionalized corruption in Australia? Potentially yes — but not to the same level as Indonesia and Russia (and one could say parts of the USA where the politicians draw up the electoral boundaries and corporations can fund political campaigns).

Are political opponents jailed or killed? No — otherwise Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard would have never become prime ministers!

Are Australians encouraged not to vote? No — voting is compulsory.

While economic policies, and unfortunately refugee policies, are similar, there are also significant differences in policy between the two major political parties in Australia, including in the areas of industrial relations, social policy, education and treatment of those that are less well off. Most importantly, there are genuine free and fair elections in Australia. There is also little doubt that the election results are fair and do not benefit any particular group. This was recently demonstrated by the Australian Electoral Commission requesting the court system to decide what action to take when it was found that almost 1400 votes were missing in the Western Australia senate election.

While there are certainly similarities between the policies and operation of the ALP and LNP, the actions of the current government in abolishing programs of the previous government demonstrates that the parties are not the same. Rather the comment that started this piece demonstrates that, rather than heading towards a guided democracy, both political parties are playing safe options to try and attract the majority of votes. While the tactic seems to be successful to a point, it has allowed smaller parties such as the Greens and Katter/Palmer to win over voters who are disaffected with what could be considered a move to the centre by both major parties in Australia. The rise and success of those smaller parties, and the influence they can wield in the senate, really is the nail in the coffin of any idea that Australia is heading towards a guided democracy.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 3

Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

In Part 2 of these articles I discussed the Left’s approach to the new world in which we now live and suggested that adopting a measure such as Gross National Happiness (GNH) could help create a new approach to economics. I intend discussing that in full in another post but for now will explain why it is important.

In the previous articles I have also talked about the new ‘intellectual working class’. They earn better money than the ‘labouring working class’ and tend to be classified, financially, as middle class. But the new consumerism helps keep them locked into the role of wage slaves. More and more consumer goods are produced and pushed at them, locking them into working longer to fulfil their role as consumers. In fact, it is consumerism that is the key driver of the current economic growth model.

I believe there is a growing gulf between created consumer ‘wants’ (as opposed to ‘needs’) and the capacity to secure them. An economic model that continues to be based on that consumerism will lead to increasing dissatisfaction and discontent among portions of the population. That this may already be happening is reflected in a decline in ‘happiness’ in North America, Australia and New Zealand in the past decade. One danger in a modern consumer society is that some may see ‘happiness’ as merely more consumer goods.

Human dignity is another side of the ‘happiness’ equation.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and associated feelings of economic insecurity may also have contributed to the decline in ‘happiness’ (less so in Australia than the USA), but the GFC highlighted some of the problems of the globalised world. Whereas, in some countries, it is government corruption that attacks human dignity, in the GFC in the West it was the greed of the banks. People were treated merely as tools in achieving higher profits for the banks. The political system’s moral compass is also out of order when the banks are allowed to get away with risky undertakings that threaten the whole of society and are then bailed out because they are ‘too big to fail’. The banks have managed to place themselves above people and when that happens human dignity suffers. Indeed, the political emphasis on economics has the same effect.

In a globalised world where multi-national corporations can wield as much, if not more, influence on a nation’s economy than the government itself, people feel helpless. What is the point of a government if it cannot control what happens? If a government lacks control, people certainly feel more insecure because their livelihood may depend not on a government decision, a government over which they can have some influence, but on a global corporation over which they have no influence.

One of the slogans during the Tunisian, or ‘Jasmine’ revolution in 2011 was ‘Dignity before bread’. Compared to the nations around it, Tunisia was relatively prosperous, although there was an increase in unemployment at the time and risk was being moved from the State to the individual — just as it is in Australia. There was also government corruption. The young unemployed man whose self-immolation helped trigger the revolt had gone to the authorities to complain about his situation but was physically beaten, in total disregard of his human dignity.

In this globalised world, where people are becoming mere cogs in an international economy, where even their own governments are at the mercy of international financiers and corporations, and politicians pay more attention to the economy than to society, human happiness and human dignity are becoming the last refuges of what it means to be human.

‘People power’ is becoming more important in this new world, reinvigorated by the internet and social media.

Adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) and people power as fundamental to a well-functioning and sustainable economy appears to me a key way forward for the Left, and indeed for Labor in Australia, even if as a party seeking government Labor has to adopt the more moderate elements of these approaches.

The concept of Gross National Happiness as a measure of a nation’s economy and progress began in Bhutan with four ‘pillars’ and was expanded into nine ‘domains’.

The four pillars are: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

The domains are: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Gross National Happiness does not ignore economic growth, seeing it as necessary to alleviate poverty, provide health services, schools and so on. The major difference is that GNH measures economic progress not in terms of the dollar value of production and services but by the well-being it achieves for the people and the society.

It offers an approach that is consistent with many of the approaches of the Left in this new world: it is people-centred, including communities not just individuals; it is focused on well-being and equity; it includes key issues such as climate change; it supports human dignity. An important part of the Left and GNH approach is that these elements do not operate in isolation: they intertwine and each is essential for overall happiness and dignity and genuine people-centred economic progress.

People are central to the Left approach. It is their well-being, happiness and dignity that should also be central to any left-of-centre government’s approach.

Our sense of community has diminished. At university I read about miners in the UK, and indeed at Newcastle in Australia, having a strong sense of egalitarianism that was fostered by overlapping work and neighbourhood networks. In our more diversified and mobile world that is unlikely to return: people in the same neighbourhood are now more likely to be in places of employment scattered around the suburbs. (Perhaps that is the reason that governments now spend millions on providing major events, attempting to create a sense of community across many neighbourhoods.) It is, however, possible to create local ‘communities of interest’ by involving people in issues that concern them — and now they can also be virtual ‘communities’ through the power of the internet.

Such involvement is the other key aspect of the Left approach to people. The New Left would be content with various forms of consultation and involvement in policy development but the radical Left would seek more autonomy, or structures in which people can actually make decisions.

Equity has long been at the core of Left beliefs. There are two major aspects of equity: one regarding the rights and freedoms of people; and the other, the economic and social equity of groups in society, including the vulnerable and minorities.

The Right of course believes that equity is achieved by removing government from the picture and allowing individuals to choose what they wish. Unfortunately, in the 250 years since the first industrial revolution, it is obvious to all but the Right that this approach does not work — many are left behind without the resources to make the choices this approach supposedly allows. The Left believe in government intervention to achieve the desired outcomes. That needs to remain central to Labor policies as we are now seeing what happens if governments kow-tow to the rich industrialists, entrepreneurs and financiers of the nation (it was a similar failing that helped undermine New Labour in the UK).

Quality of life was a New Left issue that needs to remain: it can cover everything from climate change to local transport and amenities, culture and general human dignity.

The climate change message can be sold as a quality-of-life issue. The LNP effectively did this in Opposition, in a negative way, by arguing that measures to address climate change would impact people’s livelihoods and standard of living. This needs to be countered with the quality of life downside if nothing is done.

Local amenities are always important in politics, to all sides: where else does ‘pork-barrelling’ come from? But local amenities should be put into a quality-of-life context as part of an overall vision for people across the nation, not just locally, a vision that promises to provide social amenities and enhance equity.

The radical Left would see local amenities as a question for the local people supported by government, not decided by government (the approach to people). There is a strong case for such an approach. I recall from my working years a situation where a community was offered funding to support the health of its older residents. The community, however, said that it wanted lights on the local outdoor basketball court. The public servants, of course, had difficulty with whether that would fit within the guidelines for funding but somehow the community view prevailed and the benefits were surprising. In a community that had no street lights, the lighted basketball court attracted the young people, so that they were less likely to be wandering about the community at night causing disturbances; as it was the only lit area, adults also tended to congregate there, particularly on hot nights, which brought a level of supervision over the young people; older people also came to the area, meaning, rather than being isolated in their homes, they were also being watched over by the community. That provides a classic example of how local people, more often than not, know better what is required.

Economics is not really a key element but one that in current politics needs to be addressed, particularly given the political domination of neo-liberal economics. It is, of course, complicated by the global corporations that restrict the power and influence governments can exercise over their own economy.

While the prevailing view is that a successful economy can be used to achieve social equity and other beneficial outcomes, a more radical Left view would draw on new economic approaches required to meet the challenge of climate change and improve Gross National Happiness.

It is unrealistic to expect a prospective government to abandon the current emphasis on economics but Labor should be able to change the nature of the debate. It can give more emphasis to the social outcomes of economic policies and also the social drivers of economics. It should begin adopting measures leaning towards Gross National Happiness, even if politically it is unable to adopt them in full, and pursue the argument that real economics is about how we use and distribute our resources, including human, social and environmental, not just capital. It can claim support of manufacturing by promoting and supporting environmental and renewable energy industries — something that was done under Julia Gillard but, unfortunately, without sufficient emphasis on the positive impact for manufacturing. There are many avenues available for Labor to change the tenor of the economic debate and it should take these up.

Another aspect of the New Left approach is addressing individual issues. Many of the issues pursued by the New Left remain relevant in Australia today, perhaps more so in the face of Abbott’s attacks on welfare, workers and marginalised groups. Not all voters are interested in all issues and they may not support a full range of Left (or progressive) approaches, but if their interest can be gained for the issues they believe in part of the battle is won. It may even be possible to attract the interest of some groups who normally support the LNP, for example by addressing the issue of fracking, which is a concern to many rural communities.

The differences between the New Left and the working class and its unions were overcome to some extent because there were common issues on which they could join (although significant differences remained). Strength will come by emphasising the commonalities and networking between groups.

Change can also come if Labor links itself to some of the new social movements that may arise, just as it eventually did with the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was the Labor Left that drove that linkage and perhaps it will be again, with future links.

The Fifth Estate is part of the new people power and how we use that power is crucial for success. Progressive blogs generally support Labor and they can continue to attack Abbott and point out his mistakes but that will have only limited influence on those who are not already leaning to Labor or the Left. Some middle-of-the-road or undecided voters will see it as no more than they would expect from ‘the Left’. They may not like Abbott particularly but will react negatively to repeated negative attacks.

The worst mistake Left and progressive blogs can make, as Jeff Sparrow pointed out immediately after the election, is to attack the voters as fools, or dupes of, for example, Murdoch: ‘In any case, blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people’, he wrote.

At the moment progressive blogs tend to be reactive to political events. They rarely come out and say ‘this is what progressives stand for’ or describe what progressives propose should be done to improve the future. The book I reviewed, Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, provides a range of progressive policies for the future. There is scope for more radical prescriptions that may not succeed but, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, add to the depth of the debate. Attacking Abbott’s mistakes is a valid approach but it needs to be interspersed with more positive messages that appeal to the many different groups that are affected by his decisions — even identify groups that have been affected and write pieces about how they can be better supported under a progressive approach.

Sell a positive message and it may also attract readers who are sitting on the political fence. Include in blogs pieces on civil liberties and personal freedoms, the lack of social amenities in communities, the decline in public services, the failings of the health and education systems and the growing inequality in society. State what a progressive vision means for these issues. There are clearly different sites that already achieve aspects of this but perhaps they need to link more closely and share more comprehensively.

There is room for all aspects of the Left agenda, from progressive views to radical views.

Can they be openly debated to create a more unified Left agenda and also a meaningful but more moderate left-of-centre stance for Labor?

Of course, failing all else, we can take to the barricades again as in 1968.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 2

A new world for the Left

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the Velvet and Orange Revolutions and the Arab Spring show that mass movements can still achieve social and political change, with or without violence. But the capacity of the State is a key factor in such circumstances — whether it has the strength or will to respond with, and maintain force until the movement is crushed and, occasionally, whether the State’s organs of force will continue to support it or go over to the protestors.

Despite its apparent failure, there was a lasting legacy from the student protests of 1968. Some of its issues, such as human rights, became mainstream issues. The New Left rose in the 1970s, a phoenix from the ashes of 1968. The New Left addressed issues rather than overt political change, an idea that had arisen among some socialist thinkers in the 1950s such as Anthony Crossland in the UK, quoted by Frank Bongiorno on ‘Inside Story’:

Ownership of capital now mattered less than who managed it. In these circumstances, the old preoccupation with nationalisation made little sense. Even greater equality could be achieved through progressive taxation and the education system, while socialists needed to turn their attention to what he called “deficiencies in social capital … ugly towns, mean streets, slum houses, overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, understaffed mental institutions, too few homes for the aged, indeed a general, and often squalid lack of social amenities.” In an age of abundance, socialists would also necessarily give attention to what would become known as quality of life issues: the environment, culture and civil liberties, “personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour: the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement.”

The Old Left and many in the working class, however, saw that as a betrayal. It led to divisions within the Left. Many of the New Left were seen as middle class and lacking understanding of the political needs of the working class. But as alluded to in Part 1 of these articles many became, in reality, a new working class — the college and university educated required by the new industrial order to keep it functioning. No longer just an elite to join the ruling class, university graduates were, as much as the old labouring working class, a new intellectual working class who were also wage slaves, their employment just as precarious.

In Australia, the radical Left was marginalised in the 1970s, including some of the more radical unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which was effectively closed down in 1976 after its successful ‘Green Bans’. While radical Left groups remained (and still remain) in existence they were small and mostly outside the mainstream political system.

Within politics, the Victorian Left of the ALP had been the most radical but in the lead-up to Whitlam’s election it was emasculated by a Federal ALP intervention. It was believed that Labor was not electable while that Old Left philosophy was still being pursued and still existed within some Labor policies. The issues then became more about the New Left agenda drawing in voters who were financially middle class (even if, as I keep repeating, many were actually the new working class). Whitlam’s withdrawal from Vietnam after he was elected removed the single biggest issue on which the radical Left had been able to garner wide support.

It was, in my opinion, the approach of the New Left that allowed mainstream left-of-centre political parties to accept the neo-liberal economic agenda that arose in the 1980s. I say this (not having read any similar analysis) because the focus on issues basically left the political system unchallenged.

It was the two oil crises of the 1970s and the associated economic downturns that contributed to the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan adopted the new economics eagerly. After the economic problems of the previous decade, many voters were also willing to accept the approach. The New Left had little to say on the systemic issues but remained vocal on specific impacts of the approach. The Old Left were marginalised or, like the miners in the UK, crushed by the State. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some remnants of the Old Left also lost the bastion of their faith.

Hence we come to my conclusion in Part 1: that economics has come to dominate the political debate.

Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in England, and Clinton in America, as left-of-centre governments, operated in this new context — with the view that equity could not be achieved in the absence of a strong economy. The Old Left’s challenges to the whole economic system (capitalism) were but distant cries from the wilderness. The new approach was put this way by Anthony Giddens in a New Statesman article:

… the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left — solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government — remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in the information age, the emergence of a more voluble citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Part of the rationale of New Labour in the UK was that a growing economy would allow extra funding for social issues without the need to raise taxes. As in Australia, UK Labour governments had been accused of being high taxing and high spending.

Globalisation of capital, production and distribution was also reducing the influence governments had on their own economy. Many countries could no longer pressure local corporations as major decisions were being made in Tokyo, New York, Detroit and London (to which we could now add Shanghai and Seoul). International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were additional sources of decision making that could create havoc with the political and economic choices available to governments. As Lauren Langman wrote, international corporations and agencies were increasingly dictating trade policies, tariff rates, investment laws, copy rights, labour conditions, and so on and this is continuing in more recent Free Trade Agreements.

The internet has increased the pace of globalisation. The almost instantaneous movement of capital can impact national economies with governments having little control. Information guiding corporate decisions is also now available almost in ‘real time’. A government going through its normal checks and balances and relying on cabinet decision-making processes can no longer match the speed of corporate and financial decision making. It has become a case of letting the pack run and hoping to influence how or where it runs.

Globalisation, however, has also changed social movements. The internet has created a new public space in which ideas — from the extreme right to the extreme left, and every opinion in between — can be expressed. It can also be used to organise and mobilise groups of similar views, no longer just locally or nationally but on a global scale.

The Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994 was one of the first movements to make full use of the new technology, fighting the Mexican government not just with arms but with information spread around the world, leading to the creation of solidarity groups in many countries as well as throughout Mexico. Perhaps because of the international attention they generated the Zapatistas have continued to this day to maintain autonomous areas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The anti-globalisation movement (Peoples’ Global Action) from late in the 1990s also used the internet to create a global response and mobilised protests at WTO and G8 meetings around the world. At a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 about forty to fifty thousand protestors shut down the city centre and disrupted the first day of the meeting. Police eventually responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. At the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001 the total protest group was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000. The first group of about eight to ten thousand marching towards the barricades around the G8 meeting place faced an unprovoked attack with tear gas by police, which started the battle that followed. The police response was heavy-handed, drawing no distinction between the more violent Black Bloc (anarchists) and non-violent protestors. One person was killed. A school where some protestors were staying overnight was raided and people severely beaten. Like the 1968 student protests, it was met with the force and violence of the State and is now called the ‘Battle of Genoa’.

Governments, aware of these developments, have at different times attempted to create forms of internet censorship which, so far, have been resisted. Recent revelations have shown that, instead of censorship, massive monitoring of the internet has been the response of security agencies. Spying and force remain the State’s main control mechanisms and that hasn’t changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Despite the changes in the world, the vision of the Left retains its emphasis on people and equity. It rejects the purely economic approach and the economic rationalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which mistakenly believes that if the rich get richer everybody benefits.

It could be said that one difference between the New Left and the more radical Left is that the New Left accepts equity as a goal whereas there is still a stronger element of equality in the radical Left.

Similarly, both believe in the involvement of people but perhaps the New Left believes more in terms of social movements to influence politics whereas the more radical Left still believes in control by the people, that is, the people being in a position to make decisions and not merely influence them.

The New Left tends to be more about human rights and the rights of marginalised groups and minorities. The Old Left often had a more communal focus, with its emphasis on collectives, cooperatives and so on. I believe there is still space for both, or at least space for that debate to continue as new economic models are required for the future.

The New Left focuses on issues of equity and quality of life. The more radical Left still yearns for political change but with the collapse of communist governments has been less certain of the approach until the success of the Zapatistas. The democratic socialism of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador, was also influenced by, among other factors, the Zapatistas. It could be said now that ‘people power’ is back on the agenda.

Some of the more radical Left movements arising in the 1980s had focused on ‘autonomy’, rejecting any political system and creating loosely woven local groups. They did not believe in creating political networks and so also tended to operate independently. The main difference with earlier Left groups was that they gave much greater emphasis to individual self-determination: they rejected the New Left’s emphasis on social issues just as the New Left rejected their individualism.

How the Left should now approach economics is an open question. Other than the three South American countries adopting forms of twenty-first century democratic socialism, capitalism now dominates, including in the former Soviet Union and China (even if in China it is a form of State-directed capitalism). It has become more difficult for the Left to point to any functioning alternative economic system. The effort to challenge the economic system, if it exists at all, often aims more at ‘capitalism with a heart’ rather than open attacks on the system.

One avenue that may lead to consideration of alternative economic systems is in the debate about climate change, although at present much of that debate still takes place in the context of a capitalist market system.

There is, however, also a movement considering ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measurement of economic progress, an approach adopted by Bhutan in 1972. This is not a crack-pot movement but includes academics, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and the United Nations. Even the OECD has issued guidelines on measuring well-being. The penny is beginning to drop that our current economic system, which relies on perpetual growth, cannot continue indefinitely into the future. This provides fertile ground for a new approach to economics by the progressive and Left elements in politics.

An agenda for the Left in this new world needs to draw on elements from all of these: some aspects from the radical Left, some from the New Left, and some from the social movements that are arising around climate change, anti-globalisation and the GNH approach.

The Labor Party in Australia should also draw on these, although in the chase for government the more moderate positions are likely to prevail. That does not mean, however, that more radical positions should not be debated, particularly on Left-leaning websites and even among Labor party members. As I have pointed out in these articles, a radical stance may not achieve all that it intends but it can create small shifts along the path. Human rights may not have become a dominant mainstream issue without the student revolt of 1968!

Part 3 to follow: Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 1

A History Lesson: the revolutionary period

My politics was moulded in the late 1960s, a great time in my view for the Left. The ’60s (into the ’70s) was dominated by revolutionary and liberation movements around the world — an era when Africa was completing its decolonisation. For want of a better phrase, I was an ‘armchair revolutionary’, although I was active in sit-ins and demonstrations. I drew my inspiration from the Black and Celtic liberation movements: the ANC in South Africa, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA in Ireland, ETA in the Basque country and the MAC in Wales (as tiny as that last group was). I accepted that violence was a legitimate means to counter the violence of the State. Yes, the ‘terrorism’ of the time but as was said in 1975 (admittedly in a novel) ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. (I would like to point out that the ‘terrorists’ of the time usually tried to avoid or minimise civilian casualties, unlike current terrorists who specifically target civilians.)

From 1960, Africa’s process of decolonisation proceeded rapidly. Seventeen countries gained independence in 1960, a further fifteen in the rest of the decade, and nine in the 1970s, but the process was not easy. Decolonisation proceeded on the basis of boundaries that had been imposed by the colonial powers, often simply lines drawn on maps in European capitals that bore little relationship to the different peoples who made up the ‘nations’ within those borders. In 1967, for example, the Biafran war commenced as the people of eastern Nigeria sought their own independence (I supported Biafran freedom) and in 1976 Western Sahara was granted independence but was immediately seized by neighbouring Morocco (which has led to a continuing conflict).

In South Africa apartheid was in full flow, leading to the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 in which 69 died and 180 were seriously wounded. The following year MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed by Nelson Mandela as the militant arm of the ANC. When passive resistance was met by violence, some in the ANC thought that a violent response was the only answer. Initially the MK’s targets were infrastructure and government installations which led to the charge of sabotage against Mandela at his trial in 1964.

In America, the civil rights movement had been campaigning since the 1950s (the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955). The first Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, but civil rights demonstrations were still being attacked by state troopers in 1965; Malcolm X was also assassinated that year. The Black Panthers formed in 1966. Race riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 each began as a result of police actions in Black areas. As well as police, the National Guard responded in both instances: in Newark after six days of rioting 23 people were dead, 725 injured and almost 1,500 arrested; in Detroit from five days of rioting, 43 died, 1,189 were injured and over 7,000 arrested. These were but a curtain-raiser to the massive rioting across America following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr in April 1968.

In Ireland, the official IRA was in decline and would be effectively replaced by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969; in Wales, MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, ‘Movement for the Defence of Wales’) carried out a number of bombings between 1963 and 1969; and in the Basque country ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ‘Homeland and Liberty’) began its bank robberies and shootings during the 1960s and became more active in the 1970s.

Students had already played a major part in the civil rights movement in America. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 but from 1965 adopted a more radical stance drawing on the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Even in Biafra, it was university lecturers and their students who formed the basis of the Biafran army. While many of these movements had their genesis in the previous years it came to a head in 1968 with student risings around the world.

In Mexico, student unrest began in 1967 and escalated prior to the 1968 Olympic Games: one of their key demands was that more should be spent on domestic needs rather than the Games. The government response, however, led to bigger demonstrations and student strikes culminating in police occupying two tertiary institutions in September 1968. About 14,000 people, mostly students, rallied at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (‘Plaza of the Three Cultures’) in the suburb of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October. The police and the army moved violently on the rally: although the number of deaths has never been confirmed, it has been estimated at anything between 40 and 400. It became known as the ‘Night of Sorrow’.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro students rioted for two weeks in March after a student had been killed by police. Three more students died and schools were closed and Rio occupied by the army. Riots spread throughout the country and continued until 1,240 students were arrested in Sao Paulo in October.

In Argentina, 23 students were shot dead in May 1968, and 400 students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires on June 12 in protest at the government's repression. Exactly three months later, a student strike in the capital erupted into a bloody clash with police.

In Japan in June of 1968 students occupied the medical school of the Todai University in Tokyo — considered the most prestigious in Japan. The occupation was not lifted until January 1969 after a three-day battle with police.

In Italy, during 1968 most universities were taken over by students and run by democratic assemblies. This trend started at Turin in 1967, spread to Rome early in 1968 and then, as the student revolt in France revealed itself, spread with sit-ins and student strikes and increasing contact with workers’ movements, culminating in a strike two million strong in 1969.

In West Germany, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was the dominant radical student organisation. A student was killed by police in a demonstration against a visit by the Shan of Iran in June 1967: 20,000 marched in his funeral procession. At the annual Easter peace march in 1968, 300,000 marched in the midst of upheaval caused by the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke (‘Red Rudi’), one of the principal spokespersons of SDS. Further demonstrations followed the shooting and the Bundestag (parliament) was preparing emergency laws to control the social unrest. That itself led to larger demonstrations and strikes against the laws. On the day the emergency laws were passed, 20 May, demonstrations blocked traffic in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Hanover; in Munich, the tracks at the central train station were blocked by thousands of people; and in Bonn, 100,000 marched in protest. The Left in Germany took a more militant direction in the form of the Red Army Faction and the June 2 Movement but as a mass movement it began to decline after internal disagreements and a fear of ‘Left fascism’.

In France, the disturbances began at Nanterre University in March, initially about university issues. It was the heavy-handed response of closing the university in May that helped trigger the wider revolt. The violent police response to the subsequent student street marches and barricades brought support from workers and a General Strike was called for 13 May. On that day 800,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrators marched in Paris. Having earlier closed the Sorbonne in response to student protests, the Government reopened it after the 13 May strike, but it was then occupied by students and declared an ‘autonomous people’s university’. Workers also began occupying their factories — managers were locked in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. By 20 May 1968, ten million workers were on strike. Eventually De Gaulle responded by calling a new election and threatening a state of emergency — 20,000 troops were being prepared for the occupation of Paris. Workers won improved pay and conditions and drifted back to work. Police retook the Sorbonne on 6 June. Student demonstrations were banned on 12 June. De Gaulle overwhelmingly won the election later in June and a bill reforming higher education was passed soon after.

In addition to the above examples, student unrest occurred in countries as diverse as Uruguay, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

It was also the year of the birth of ‘liberation theology’ within the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

It had been American students who pioneered the ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupation’ (of buildings), starting at Berkeley in 1964. In 1968 student unrest continued in America, such as the ‘occupation’ at Columbia University, protesting the university’s involvement in weapons research and also local racism. Police broke up the sit-in in a five-hour battle in which 150 people were injured and 700 arrested. This, and events such as the Chicago Democratic Convention riot in August, led to the radicalisation of the student movement and some militant groups, for instance ‘The Weathermen’, were formed.

American student unrest, however, actually reached a peak two years later in May 1970.

The 1970 student protests were widespread. They started in April at Yale University with support for the Black Panthers, demanding the release of Bobby Seale, but at the end of the month Nixon announced the invasion (called an ‘incursion’) of Cambodia and the two issues melded. By mid-May more than 500 colleges and universities were directly involved with strikes and protests and by the end of May the number climbed to about 900. George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left, described the response to the May demonstrations like this:

During May, over 100 people were killed or wounded by the guns of the forces of law and order. Besides the four murdered and ten wounded at Kent State on May 4 and the two people murdered and twelve wounded at Jackson State on May 14, six black people were murdered and twenty were wounded in Augusta, Georgia; eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico; twenty people suffered shotgun wounds at Ohio State; and twelve students were wounded by birdshot in Buffalo.

The ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia was an event of a somewhat different kind. Student protests against the leadership of Novotny in October 1967 contributed to his replacement by Dubček in January 1968. In response to Dubček’s reforms the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 20 August. Students were again involved in the passive resistance that followed. They avoided confrontation (even the Government ordered the small Czechoslovakian army to remain in its barracks) so as to give no excuse to the Soviets for military action. Dubček was taken to Moscow on 23–26 August and agreed to water down the reforms in return for remaining in power, but resistance continued until Dubček was replaced in April 1969 and the new government cracked down on protests.

Why were students at the forefront of these protests and demonstrations? In simple terms, they were youthful, without the responsibilities that may have held back their elders and they were partially segregated on campuses which gave them a critical mass for action. And in an important sense they were continuing the struggles of the working class. They were not really a new middle class, as some have claimed, but an emerging new working class. Following WW2, intellect was being commodified and added to the production process.

The role of college training is increasingly important for the functioning of industrialized societies. Large-scale industry needs more technicians within its offices to coordinate space-age production, more managers to administer it, more psychologists to find ways of keeping employees working, advertising specialists to market the goods of the new consumer society and sociologists to maintain the system's overall capacity to function.

The radical students and those who followed are often referred to as the New Left, but what was new about it? It was inspired by the writings of people like Frantz Fanon and the speeches of Malcolm X; it utilised Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare, not to wage war, but to organise in new ways; it rejected not only the capitalist system but the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Communism. And although there were political elements to their demands, many demands questioned basic social assumptions of the time —‘the cultural conformity of consumerism, the oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and the segregation of youth.’ Human rights and the human condition were often central to or underpinned their demands. The students challenged governments for not living up to social ideals.

The movements were not successful, owing primarily to massive repression by the State — the number of deaths throughout the world testify to that. The workers who were involved often returned to normal work as unions reasserted control by negotiating improved wages and conditions.

The integrity of the New Left's vision and the high hopes of movement participants were some of its chief strengths, but with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the near-revolution in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pre-Olympic massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, and the election of Richard Nixon, the hopes of the New Left were dashed against the hard rocks of reality.

Another crucial factor in their failure was internal dissent, as debate centred on the way forward. As the State reaction was violent some leaned towards responding in kind. But many women in the movement turned away from that, seeing it as a ‘macho militaristic’ stance. There were internal inconsistencies within the movements.

The world has changed. Since then there have been successful people’s movements such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine but these occurred in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union when the respective States were less willing to intervene with force.

At a political level, thanks largely to Thatcher and Reagan, economics has come to dominate political discourse. The old idea of an equitable society has been subsumed, even within centre-left political parties, by the idea that equity cannot be achieved without a strong economy. There is some validity to that but the debate has moved too far in that direction. Those espousing social change are drowned out by the economists.

We also suffer from the fact that many revolutionary movements these days are in the Middle East among Islamic societies and they tend to be right-wing, especially with the fervour of the Islamic fundamentalists – that does not provide any sustenance to the Left in the West. (Although I note as a late addition to this piece that the Ukraine is at it again and more power to them!)

So where does that leave us? Part 2 to follow – A New World for the Left.

What do you think?